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How to Talk So Your Boss Will Listen

Alison Green

Ever left a meeting with your boss feeling like she didn't listen well enough or didn't understand what you needed? Or maybe you don't even bother to approach your boss because you don't think she'll see things your way. While there certainly are plenty of bad or unresponsive managers out there, often you can change the results you get by changing your approach.

Here are seven keys for talking to your boss - and maximizing your chances of really being heard.

--Give the upshot, then fill in details if needed. Your manager is probably busy - and even if she's not, she probably doesn't want to spend 10 minutes hearing tons of background before you get to the point. And she certainly doesn't want to listen to that 10 minutes while wondering what this is all leading up to. So start with the upshot, and then fill in more details if they're needed and wanted. By starting with the point, your manager will be better able to process the details, which means you'll get a more useful answer and, significantly, your manager won't dread a drawn-out conversation she doesn't have time for when you pop your head into her office. Similarly...

--Clearly state what you need. Are you just giving your boss a heads-up of something she should be aware of? Or asking for approval for something? Or seeking input? Clearly state what outcome you're hoping for, so that she knows precisely what you're looking for from her.

--Pay attention to your boss's communication preferences. You might prefer writing lengthy reports, but if your boss prefers a one-page bulleted list or an in-person chat, your preferences will have to make way for hers - at least if you want to increase your chances of a good outcome. It's important to pay attention to how your boss prefers to communicate and adapt accordingly. If you learn that she's always harried on Monday mornings and rarely checks her email, or that she rarely has much time to talk unless you schedule a meeting, you can pick the approach most likely to get what you need.

--Be attuned to how much information your boss wants. Some bosses want to hear all the background and every option you considered and why. Other bosses just want to hear the basics, and have little patience for the supporting details. And sometimes it varies depending on the context - your boss may not have any interest in hearing about all the options you considered for the new copier, but might care very much about what process you took before recommending a new product line.

--Stay calm and keep your emotions in check. Even when you're frustrated or angry, you'll generally get a better result from your manager if you can remain calm. If your manager can count on you to be a rational, objective thought partner, you'll have far more credibility about the very thing you feel so strongly about. And speaking of credibility ...

--Disclose your biases. Most managers can tell when you're not playing it straight with them or are pushing an agenda. But if you're vigilant about putting all the facts on the table when you're talking through an issue, and even acknowledged your own biases, you'll have real credibility. For instance, if you have a difficult, irritating co-worker who always makes suggestions that create more work for you, it might be easy to dismiss his input as being bad or useless, because you're annoyed. But if you assess his ideas honestly and acknowledge if they're good, despite your aggravation you'll demonstrate that your priority is to be honest and objective, not to advance your own interest. As a result, you'll find that your opinion will be taken more seriously, and any objections you do raise are more likely to be accepted.

--Think about the big picture. If your manager is any good at her job, she's always thinking about the big picture. For instance, you might only think about how your request to work from home on Fridays would affect you, but your boss needs to think about how it might impact the entire team. If you approach things from that perspective too, you'll be able to preemptively think of solutions to concerns she's likely to have (and thus head them off), as well as figure out the framing that will most resonate with her. And by speaking directly to the things she cares about, you'll show that you "get it," which will make you more likely to get what you need.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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