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My boss constantly tells me he sees I'm thinking about something and asks me what it is.

It happens during meetings every time I don't look at him or talk. The truth is I normally try to think about the practicalities of what we discuss, consequences of what we discuss for our projects, just, you know, doing my normal job. I'm not thinking anything special and my thoughts are not expressible yet.

I tried saying something like "nothing special", but he doesn't give up and tells me he wants to know.

When I answer "the topics we discuss", he says "So what do you think about it?". Yes, I can answer this question with some kind of a general statement, but I feel pressured when he does that and it's not a nice feeling.

Also, this happens very frequently.

The problem is he asks that in situations in which I don't want to be more communicative. These are situations in which I feel I don't have enough information yet to make even an educated guess. And he tends to treat your first answer as your final answer, so I want to avoid giving a quick but wrong one. And situations where I need to process the data first.

Any ideas how to tackle that? This happens to me the first time in my life and I find it super strange.

  • 1
    Your paragraph starting with "The problem is he asks that in situations in which I don't want to be more communicative" contains some legitimate concerns. It sounds like you're able to express to us why you react in the way that you do. Have you tried explaining that to your boss? – dwizum Apr 15 at 17:01
16

I want to distinguish between two very similar things your boss might say in a meeting. You are hearing:

What are you thinking about?

And as others have said, answering this with the truth, "I am processing what you said and connecting it to similar things" etc is helpful. It's possible your boss thinks you're daydreaming, is wondering if you're listening, and so on.

But it's also possible that your boss is asking:

What are your thoughts on this?

or

What do you think about this?

And that is an entirely different question. It means it is your turn to talk now. It does not mean "please reveal your current thoughts." You presumably came into the meeting with some knowledge, and have just gained some more, and now you are being asked to share.

At this point you can give your opinion if you have one. If you do not, then you can ask questions if information is missing, or explain what you need to do to have an opinion. Sample answers:

  • this all sounds like a great plan and I'm in favour
  • do we know the extra costs of doing this? (Or how much longer it will take, or whatever other thing is in your area of concern and responsibility)
  • this sounds interesting, but I need some time at a whiteboard to think about how it will fit into our current design
  • I would like to do that, and I think there may be time after [whatever is occupying your time right now] to start looking at it.

Don't make your boss interview these things out of you. They tend to get irritated by that. Ideally you could trust your boss enough that you could say things as they occur to you, like "that is going to increase the amount of overnight processing we have to do" or "that will mean Sue has less time to spend working on my project" or the like. If you aren't sure about those conclusions, you can always ask them as questions: "will that increase...?" "will that mean less... ?" Your boss may not be able to answer but will understand what is going through your head. Even better, the two of you may be able to sort the whole thing out together.

Some people like to think a long time and then make a decision. Others want to think together and reach that decision together. I believe your boss is asking you to move some way along that spectrum, closer to the thinking-together end.

  • 1
    This strikes me as one of the best answers I've seen on The Workplace in a long time. You're correctly inferring that the question may have two very different meanings, and you're explaining how to respond. – dwizum Apr 16 at 13:58
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Some people process information better through discussion. Some people process information by thinking about it internally first. Your boss appears to be the former and is trying to engage you in a discussion. In your shoes I would simply say something along the lines of what you said here.

I am just processing what we are talking about. Nothing I can really articulate yet.

That is if you truly can't shift your approach. If knowing what is happening helps relieve the pressure (and you could verify with your boss that that is what they are looking for if the confirmation helps) you could consider engaging in the activity. Being a sounding board for your boss is a good way to solidify your importance. As it stands they probably already think highly of you if they are constantly trying to engage your inner thought process.

8

That you boss is doing this whenever you body language does not communicate that you are paying attention might mean that he thinks you are daydreaming rather than paying attention to the matter at hand. If so, answering "nothing" would reinforce that perception.

To clear up this misunderstanding during the meeting, I would tell him exactly what I was thinking about, possibly prefaced with a disclaimer that your assessment is preliminary since you are still thinking it through. If possible, build upon what he was just saying, thereby demonstrating that you have been paying attention.

It might also be worthwhile to explain your body language in your next one on one. For instance, you could something like:

You may have noticed that I often stare into the distance during meetings. That's just me listening intently. For some reason I find it easier to listen carefully when my eyes are not engaged and I can fully concentrate on your voice.

2

I'm generally the same way - I look off into nowhere while my brain is processing what's going on (or 'worse', I close my eyes while I think.)

Two things I've found useful in situations like that are:

  1. You don't have to answer the same speed as the asker.
  2. You don't have to answer with a statement of fact. You can answer with a question.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like your boss is sometimes asking you your opinion about a large issue before you've had time to mentally digest it. That often happens with go-getters that get a bit swept up in the enthusiasm. Which can be great... but it can also be a problem - both because sometimes people don't get time to think through the issue to spot possible problems/ramifications, and because some people don't operate efficiently in such a rapid-fire environment.

That first suggestion comes in really handy in those situations. It allows you to slow the tempo of the conversation down. You get asked a question? Take a slow breath, optionally say a stall word like "Well", give yourself some pauses between phrases. You don't even have to get into the 'meat' of a thought in the first clause.

"So, that's why we're thinking about moving everything to AWS. Kevin, any thoughts?"

"[Slow exhale] Well... I was just thinking... how would we handle security? Right now, we can use Active Directory for everything - do we know whether that would work in AWS?"

This gives you some time to compose your thoughts - but it also slows the conversation down and gives everyone time to think through the issue a bit more.

And it brings you to the second tactic: responding with a question.

Keep in mind, when you're trying to puzzle through a topic/issue, you don't have to arrive at the answer to be useful. Simply coming up with a possible question is valid. In the AWS example, maybe I could've come up with the right answer if I had enough time. But it's actually better if I don't try to come up with the answer solo. Bringing it up as a discussion point lets everyone try to figure out the best answer to the problem.

0

Have you tried a date for a date?

My assumption is:

  • you've already tried (as you say) the general answer - "I'm thinking about the topic XYZ that we've just been discussing... I'm pondering the risks involved before I chime in with a recommendation". -- and you're bothered, because that may not be good enough for him.
  • I like the question for a question idea, but sometimes it doesn't feel right - either because you don't have a ready question, and you don't want to pull out a poorly thought out question.
  • you're not in a high-distraction environment where there's not any reason to think that he thinks you're distracted
  • you're not doing anything really strange that he wants you to stop... staring or closing your eyes is not strange - it's pretty normal. I mean something like drooling, twitching, self-harm, or doing something really annoying (foot tapping, jittering, etc)

Another permutation is a date for a date -- "I'm thinking about the ramifications of topic XYZ - I'm going to need to some time to consider it, mind if I get back to you on it ... pick one: {next week, tomorrow, this afternoon, in a few minutes}...". Needless to say, different questions have different reasonable response times, and it means you do need to be able to judge that. But if there's times where you get feedback that suggests your judgement is off, you could also calibrate privately with your boss.

Another angle might be to get him in private and frankly ask him why he asks so much. Mention that you like that he values your opinion, but you're feeling a weird sort of pressure here. Maybe you two can find a better way of getting what you need from each other... some thoughts:

  • he may be an extrovert and you may be an introvert - so that he thinks the best time to process is IN the meeting with all kinds of people around, and you feel just the opposite - that you'd think better with out him staring at you... both are totally valid, but you each need your needs met here. One way to handle this is to give the introvert think time after the meeting. Another is to give the introvert the meeting materials before the meeting so they can get the think time in BEFORE the meeting so the decision can be made in the meeting.

  • he may have a desperate need for reassurance (hey, bosses are people too...) - so maybe there's a way to you can confirm that you are taking the issue and his ideas seriously, without committing. Maybe you can even do it before he asks... say something like "I know you want an answer on XYZ, but I need some time to think it through..."

  • he may think it's much easier to answer than you do... by sharing how you think about it vs. how he thinks, you might figure out joint agreement on how fast answers should be. He may also be able to share WHY he needs the answer so very fast. My company has a good way of clarifying whether we're operating at a crisis pace vs. a regular pace - so that we can clarify when even a not well thought out answer is better than an answer 3 days from now.

  • there may be a reason why the answer (or at least the demonstrated ability to be close to providing one) - is very valuable IN the meeting. For example - because a demanding customer is there.

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