I've been at this job (as a contractor) since early September. My supervisor and I have a major communications issue: I do not understand what she says, and she does not understand what I say. I know I'm not going to change the way she speaks, so I continue to ask clarifying questions and ask for feedback about what I turn in - I do my best to understand what she's asking for.

But I'm really frustrated about this: When I point out something:

  1. that needs attention, her response is about something
  2. When I ask a question, she provides an answer to something I didn't ask. For example: Today I emailed her asking if our boss was planning to provide the feedback we are waiting for on paper (rather than online), and said that if she was going to do that, I would go in to the office (I'm working from home).

My supervisor's answer:

Boss is going to be in meetings all day. She won't be available.

My response:

That's fine, I don't need to meet with her. I'm just saying that if I need to go in, which I will if the feedback is coming in that form, I'd like to know now [you know - so I can shower, change clothes, etc.]


Boss is not available and will not be at all today. You will not need to come in… I have nothing yet AND she has not provided anything as of yet. She will not be in the office…you won’t meet with her…

This kind of exchange happens all the time - face to face, on the phone, on email. I don't know exactly what's going on in her mind, but it seems that she leaps over my question and draws a conclusion that has nothing to do with what I want to know. The more I try to clarify, the more insistent she becomes, providing the same answer over and over. So not only do I not get the information I'm seeking, but I end up frustrated and annoyed.

I think I'd like to suggest to her that we do something to work together on our mutual communication issues. Recent experience suggests that she might be open to that.

So my question is: What's out there (book, CDs, whatever) that is inexpensive and easy to use that she and I might be able to do during lunch times?

Sub-question: Any of you ever had this kind of situation? If so, how did you deal?

  • 1
    Is your native language the same? I'm asking so we can discard any language-related issues.
    – Charmander
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 20:58
  • 2
    are you the only one having this communication issue with her? does anyone else have the same problem? if not, how do you know the problem is on her side? Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 21:03
  • Read the books of Deborah Tannen. Her is one to start with: amazon.com/Talking-9-5-Deborah-Tannen-ebook/dp/B007OWRB9K/…
    – HLGEM
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 23:45
  • We are both native English speakers. No one else reports to her. I'm not suggested that the problem is solely hers. As I wrote, there are "mutual communication issues." I read Tannen's first book, The Argument Colture. It was great at describing the issue but didn't suggest any cures. I'll check out Talking 9-5.
    – LerPa
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 22:25

2 Answers 2


A quick (relevant) story - A programmer's wife asked her husband to run to the store and buy a half-gallon of milk, and if they had fresh eggs, buy a dozen. The programmer returned with 12 half-gallons of milk. When his wife asked why he bought so much milk, he responded, "They had fresh eggs."

From your description, it seems you are very precise in your communications, speaking explicitly and inferring nothing. You likely prefer if-statements of the form if (xyz == true) over if (xyz).

Today I emailed her asking if our boss was planning to provide the feedback we are waiting for on paper (rather than online), and said that if she was going to do that, I would go in to the office (I'm working from home).

My supervisor's answer: Boss is going to be in meetings all day. She won't be available.

To people who do not require such precision in their sentences, your boss's response is reasonable. It can be inferred from her response that the boss will not be providing the feedback. This is not asking "something1" and getting an answer about "something2."

I suggest, rather than responding by telling your boss that she didn't answer your question, you should respond by drawing a reasonable (to you) inference, and communicating that to her. For example...

Boss: The big boss will not be available today.

You: Ok, thanks. I'll plan on working from here unless I hear differently from you.

This way, you're not implying that your boss cannot understand simple questions, and she won't have a reason to think you're difficult to communicate with.

  • This is great advice, and describes me perfectly. She got mad at me today for editing Notifications in our Learning Management System, and says that she told me not to upload the emails. She did. But in my mind "Notifications" and "emails" (in terms of the context) were two completely unconnected thing. And yes, my language is neurotically precise.
    – LerPa
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 22:30

It sounds like you're more linear/direct and she's more cloud/context. In your example exchange, she did answer your question, she just expected you to infer the answer instead of stating it directly. "The boss is out today, so no you don't need to come in and no, there won't be any feedback to address." She is likely frustrated that she has to repeat something she thinks is obvious.

The main issue is that each of you feels that you're being clear, but the feedback you're getting is making you doubt that the other person truly understood what you meant.

The first step in my opinion is talking about how different your styles are - neither is better or worse, they're just different. Then agree to be patient with each other while you learn each other's language. This will involve a lot of confirming that you understood correctly.

Instead of repeating the same question, try to deduce an answer from what she's said, and ask if your understanding is correct. When you ask about A and she talks about B, ask about how the two are related. If you feel like you can joke about it with her, say something like "My Venusian isn't that good - can you translate that into Martian for me?"

I have linear/direct communication tendencies, so I try to approach cloud/context communication as a puzzle to be solved. The answer is in there somewhere if you look for it, and sometimes you have to ask for a hint. I've also found being concise and asking follow up questions works better than trying to get all the information you need in one go. It keeps the nonlinear connections from getting too complex for me to puzzle out.

In your example exchange, I would have started with "Do I need to come into the office today?" and when she said, "no, the boss is out." I'd have said "OK, I thought maybe we'd need to go over that paper. Let me know if anything changes. "

  • I have to agree with this. I understood what the boss meant the first time based on his example. I suppose some people need directly told yes or no. Adding a follow up email without trying to ask the first question again is ideal. A good reply would have been, "Okay, I will be at home. Let me know if anything changes and I will come in ASAP."
    – Dan
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 18:44
  • I also think taking 5 minutes before a reply would be ideal here. Assume she answered your question and take 5 minutes to think it over. If you still feel confused, try asking the bits you are confused about rather than rewording your original question.
    – Dan
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 19:04
  • Dan and Colleen - thanks. Like Kent's, you answers are right on the mark. I like it and will give it a try. There is another thing. Often, when I ask about her plans for / the status of / location of / workings of a particular project, she will listen and then explain all about something completely different and unrelated. When she's done, I say something like, Yeah, I do understand that. But I'm asking about this... It usually takes two tries or more to guide her to the subject I'm asking about. Not sure there is anything to help with this other than patience ...
    – LerPa
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 22:44
  • @LerPa I understand your frustration. It happens to me a often too. What I've found is that I'm overwhelming people with detail and if I ask simpler questions, and ask more questions as they respond, it's easier. When talking to context folks, we need to get them to slow down and let us check our understanding, so lots of active questioning is better than a lot of listening. You will have to make sure she knows you're interrupting a lot because you want to understand and not to be rude. Eventually you will work out a rhythm, if she's open to it.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 22:53
  • @LerPa Also, be really careful about assuming you know what she's saying. Treat it like The DaVinci Code. There's what's on the surface and the interesting stuff is hidden deeper. If something seems unrelated to the topic at hand, ask about it. Sometimes the context folks don't realize they made jumps that we didn't follow.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 23:04

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