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I don't know if it's because of an undiagnosed learning disability or what, but discussing specs verbally is essentially impossible for me. While I'm still processing what someone has said, they've finished discussing three other things. I very quickly get lost in meetings because I just don't absorb information that way. It's a problem I've had my entire life-- I was never able to follow lectures in school. (And I have to use captions when watching tv.)

(Before someone suggests it-- It's not a loudness issue, so a hearing aid would only hurt my ears.)

At any rate, we're using YouTrack to keep track of issues, but it's not used exclusively. I get a lot of drop-bys-- my boss and my coworkers coming to explain their code, give tweaks to the specs, etc. I just can't follow any of it.

Is it appropriate for me to just outright tell them, "I'm sorry-- I'm never going to be able to remember this without a written explanation" or something like that? It sounds to me like it would be unreasonable to say something like that, but I'm at a loss for what else to do.

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    At a minimum, I would recommend sending an email confirming anything that's discussed. That will open the door to clarification and correcting any misunderstandings. – Chris E Aug 10 '16 at 15:45
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    A simple solution for drop-bys: get a piece of paper out asap, and say "Sure, let me write that down". Then re-phrase what you understood from what the other person said. Don't let him leave until you have something clear enough for you written down. Then send an email from your notes requesting the other party to acknowledge that this is what they want. This will allow you have something written down, requires the othe one to walk you though it at your speed, and makes sure you both end up with the same information. – Polygnome Aug 10 '16 at 21:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Aug 11 '16 at 21:31
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    If you suspect you might have an undiagnosed learning disability, it is probably worthwhile to talk to your doctor about it. – Mr.Mindor Aug 12 '16 at 15:38

15 Answers 15

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First, realize that some people actively process information through discussing and talking through it. You presumably are not in this group, but some people are. In a generalized sense, this is an introvert vs extrovert processing situation.

My experience as an introverted processor - I cannot follow a fast moving, unguided conversation at all - is that most people who can do this are completely and utterly oblivious to the fact that others want a structured, defined, organized conversation, and are completely lost without it.

Second, the problem you are describing is not ever fully resolvable without a defined plan. There always will be things lost in those short conversations, even for people who are "good" at processing information verbally.

My recommendations are to address both pieces of this - meetings as well as drop by requests.

  • Have a meeting agenda and shared document to edit/create. Having a meeting agenda helps you be prepared for the discussion. Having a spec/doc that is updated realtime helps everyone to confirm and finalize the discussion
    • It is probably a good idea to also have meeting notes which get sent out after a meeting capturing any decisions regardless, too
    • I've found having meeting notes be updated as part of the meeting to be hugely beneficial, particularly when combined with an agenda
  • Request updates in writing. This is simple to do and something I (and nearly everyone else in technical fields) end up doing. It's just too easy to have things lost in translation. After talking about it, just ask, "can you confirm what you are asking in email/request/etc form so I can make sure I didn't misunderstand?"
    • You may have a formalized system for this or not, but even an email can be beneficial
    • Probably best to have a formalized system though, as much as people hate them issue trackers such as jira/redmine/etc solve this problem well. I'm not familiar with YouTrack but it appears to be good for this, you may want to create tickets for people as Dan Lyons suggests

These two suggestions should solve most of your issues.

I have similar, though perhaps not as extreme, issues as you do and on at least one project I've worked on with people who love verbal processing would have been completely lost without the above. I could not follow meetings at all and was overwhelmed in the "minor spec" requests. In my case I just used a shared OneNote workbook - but it was a small enough team this worked.

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    OP mentions they use YouTrack, so requesting updates in writing could boil down to creating YouTrack issues. He may have to slowly guide people toward that end, though, by creating issues on their behalf, emailing them links to the issues, and demonstrating the benefits of using the system (e.g., clarifying requirements, tracking progress, increasing visibility to others, etc.). If OP does a good enough job evangelizing the tracking system, people will start using it of their own volition. – Dan Lyons Aug 10 '16 at 17:27
  • @DanLyons yeah, I agree with that. I'm not super familiar with YouTrack, but if it already does this - perfect! In my case, my team (where everyone was an extroverted no-agenda talker and drove me nuts) eventually started really appreciating my detailed notes and process. It made meetings a lot more effective that's for sure ;-) – enderland Aug 10 '16 at 17:29
  • Request updates in writing. ** This part can't be stressed enough. I **ALWAYS follow up and request a response so that we are all on the same page. – dphil Aug 11 '16 at 15:02
  • Since we're talking about specs, I would argue that a spec isn't a spec unless it's written down. I think instead of asking for updates in writing I might create a summary and send it out as documentation so everybody involved can refer back to what has been documented. – Speck Aug 12 '16 at 17:58
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First, if it's an "undiagnosed" learning disability, I don't know that you'd have any specific accommodation laws that would apply, here (IANAL - Consult professional legal advice if you believe it is necessary).

However, if you go to your supervisor / manager and explain this, you can probably reach some common ground.

Second: Verbal communication is the most direct communication we have as humans. It's the most nuanced, especially in person, and the one most people are the most comfortable with. Abstracting it to written-only communication is difficult and results in a lot of omissions because there is little back-and-forth.

However, if you honestly do have trouble here, there are some approaches that may work:

  • A personal voice recorder. They're relatively inexpensive (as in your boss may spring for it). You simply explain to people you meet with that you have a hard time remembering conversations, and you use this to help yourself. ALWAYS make it clear you are recording conversations. Legally the requirements for notification vary by jurisdiction, but it would never go over well to have someone find out later they were being recorded and didn't know about it.

  • A good notebook application. Evernote is what I use. Take notes during the conversation. There are plenty to choose from.

  • A notebook. Just write things down as they are discussed. Explain to people you meet with that, "If I don't write it down, I won't remember it."

Point being - you need to make accommodations for you. Expecting everyone else to deal with you differently is not a realistic option. Imagine the communications methods matrix that would exist if everyone in your company tried to enforce that on everyone else? Eventually, you'd end up printing SMS messages on fortune cookie strips to be carried by pigeon (Yes, a little hyperbolic, but it explains the issue).

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    Taking notes might actually be an interesting way for others to visualize the difficulty you're having. If they're on to point 4 and you're still taking notes on point 1, that might help them understand just how difficult they're making things for you. – Chris G Aug 10 '16 at 16:09
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    Or give them a reason to find a way to get rid of you. I am sorry to be blunt but, whatever is out of what others perceive as "normal" gets to be refused by the majority. And when this refusal becomes an issue at the workplace, removal of the person who out of the norm, is the easiest way to go. It is not legal (at least in US) to dismiss people due to their handicap, but as everyone knows, you do not have to bring it up in the dismissal process and none will be any wiser. – MelBurslan Aug 10 '16 at 17:00
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    @ChrisG In my experience, that would just get the OP marked as slow or incompetent at note taking which seems wholly counter-productive. – Lilienthal Aug 11 '16 at 8:05
  • @MelBurslan Maybe, but in that case, one is likely to be fired anyway. Because not delivering on requirements you pretended to understand and have gotten "down" is probably considered more egregious than taking longer than average to write down or understand said requirements. So by comparison, there is nothing to lose. – iheanyi Aug 12 '16 at 21:20
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First, I don't have this inability to proces verbal conversations, but I always end any meeting or conversation that contains new tasks or software requirements with a request for the person who added the task to follow-up in writing in the appropriate system. It is not a real requirement until it is in the tracking system or the project management system or in an email (depending on what the new task is). I bring this up because people are not automatically going to think there must be something wrong with you if you ask for things to be confirmed in writing. So you can solve a good part of this problem by doing that without mentioning that you have a hard time processing.

Next, people are going to continue to communicate verbally and that will be true of most places where you could work. So you need to think what you can do to minimize the issue.

One thing is to look for workplaces where you can work remotely or where a large percentage of workers are remote. People seems to adapt better to doing more things through formal systems when everyone on the team is not readily available for a quick meeting.

Another thing is to volunteer to take notes for the meeting. Because you are the formal notetaker, if they go too fast, you can just say, "Hey wait I'm still on point 1. Now was else did you say?" Because they know that formal note taking slows people down, no one will find it odd if you ask them to repeat to make sure you get it right. In a meeting room, you could be the person who writes down the suggestions as they are made on the whiteboard. The others will see if you missed anything important and ask you to add it to the whiteboard.

Another thing to do is to record (but there are legal issues, so make sure it is ok and that people know in advance that they are being recorded). In this case, you will need to let them know that it is because you need to listen to the conversation several times not to document wrong doing. So using this technique will mean you will have to disclose. I would use it as a last resort.

You could also simply always carry a paper notebook and take written notes. It has been shown that handwriting accesses a different part of the brain than typing and retention of information is far greater when you handwrite notes. Since retention is your problem, have you tried handwriting notes rather than using a laptop or tablet? The activity of taking notes also engages your brain in the conversation more than just listening. Depending on the type of disability you have, this might not work for you, but if you have only ever just tried to listen to and then later remember conversations or only taken notes by typing them, it could make a difference.

I leave you with the idea that disabilities are just things to learn to overcome. Everybody has something they don't naturally do well. Many more people than you are aware of have diagnosed disabilities. It is often their attitude towards overcoming their disability that ultimately dictates whether it is career-limiting or not. I have worked with a deaf auditor who had to interview strangers for a living, a dyslexic person whose job was to perform Quality Control on large technical documents and he was so successful that he was promoted to the head of the QA department. (In fact I knew him for 8 years before I found out he had a learning disability.) Pretty amazing for someone who had difficulty reading and writing. I have worked with depressed people who still manage to go to work and work well even when they are depressed and people in wheelchairs for a variety of reasons with successful careers. So don't give up on finding ways to adapt.

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Short answer but go the the blackboard and start taking notes. They will know what you understand and you force the pace.

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I'm sorry-- I'm never going to be able to remember this without a written explanation

I think you have to be willing to write it down yourself. There are people who talk and don't organize their thoughts into writing (and they're your boss so you can't tell them to put it in writing); but it's usual to have/take/make minutes of a meeting (so they shouldn't mind your doing that).

So something like, "I'm just gonna write this down" or "I'll make some notes". Then "hang on" or "just a minute" if they talk faster than you can write. Don't try to write their every word, but you can at least make notes, i.e. summarize what they say as and when you understand it.

Or instead of "writing", maybe you can type (take dictation) nearly as fast as they can talk.

You can also read back from your notes at the end to confirm you've understand and captured what they wanted: "Ok, so here's what I've got: (reads notes which summarize the to-do)."

It's related to this answer. Another advantage of 'minutes' is that the minutes define what happened in the meeting. If I'm taking a meeting's minutes, it has felt to me like I'm the one who decides what was said during the meeting.

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I would be wary of trying to get your way on this issue, because once you announce your problem, it may call into question your suitability for the job. If you cannot conduct verbal conversations with co-workers, your manager may deem you un-qualified for a position that involves basic human interaction.

So tread carefully on how you bring this up...

Also beware that there are ways to get around any legal protections for disabilities that you may be banking on.

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Many types of problems are much more easily solved face to face rather than through written communication so this isn't a minor accommodation you are asking for. It's very important that this isn't framed as a personal preference thing.

This seems to me that this could be a diagnosable learning disability. When requesting special accommodation for something of this nature I would recommend getting a note from a doctor/psychologist. This would serve as a clear delineation of "I prefer..." and "I am unable to...". Once you have backing that this accommodation will be provided, you will need to stick to your guns ensuring that it's followed through on consistently.

Edit: This is assuming you are working in a culture where accommodation to psychological conditions would be within the societal norms. Don't do this in countries where worker protections don't exist for those with psychological conditions.

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I'd say that having specs/requirements in writing is a good thing anyway even if you didn't have problems understanding/remembering conversations. It always helps to have a document trail so when someone asks why does it do XYZ you can point to where in the documentation it said to do that. I'd try first to push for that as a general best process. That doesn't mean face to face discussions can't occur or aren't a good option at times but it does mean the results of those conversations should be written down. If you are able to get that as a general practice that should cover most of your issue.

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If you are concerned you may have an undiagnosed learning disability, would you be willing to talk with a doctor and attempt to get a formal diagnosis? If you are diagnosed, you can then talk to your boss about it with better knowledge of your situation and proof that you may need some accommodations for reasons beyond your control. Furthermore, if your company has appropriate policies in place, you can potentially benefit from them - for example, perhaps HR has policies that describe exactly what kinds of accommodations you should receive, making the discussion much easier and straightforward for you and your boss. If it turns out that you don't actually have a learning disability or otherwise, you still gain the benefit of being able to put those concerns to rest.

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I have had this exact problem my whole life. I don't like to even go to lunch with more than one person because I know the conversation will get away from me.

A big help is to have confidence. Saying what you need, clearly, helps. I sometimes stop the meandering conversation to ask a clarifying question. We all have weaknesses. Developing compensation skills helps even your abilities out.

Follow up on things in text and email soon after a meeting. This gives you another chance to capture what you might have missed.

And yes, you can come right out and admit your weaknesses. Some will judge you harshly, others will be glad to know how to communicate effectively with you. I'd like to think most of us are in the later camp.

If you tell people expect some to get it wrong. They will overcompensate or miss the point of what you tell them. I've told people I have a slight hearing loss (which I do) only to have them start screaming at me. Give them gentle feedback and show you appreciate their efforts.

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You have plenty of good answers already. I didn't see the following covered:

  • You are not alone, this is not a disability. Sure, what you describe sounds a bit on the extreme side, but I have met many "normal" people who have difficulty following discussions with quick back-and-forth. It is certainly not related to I.Q. or something like that.

  • It is normal to take notes during a conversation. Conversations, especially between quick-thinking/speaking people, often get very chaotic, back&forth, unstructured, and at the end of the thing, nobody knows what actually has been said. Whenever I am in a meeting, face to face or virtual, I always follow it up with something in text form if there were results I want to have remembered. I count almost everything that's not written down as "didn't happen".

  • A technique is that when you sense that a certain point has been discussed, you stop, get out your pen, write it down. At this moment, if you are unsure what has been said, just say so. "So, what do we do?" or "I understand that we ...". Make it a habit, people will get used to it and be glad that you are writing a protocol. If pen&paper is weird in your company, simply get an good-looking set (nice leather booklet and a good fountain pen); it doesn't need to be that expensive, but it's a statement that this is important to you and not just a quick hack.

  • I do not see a reason to formally discuss this with your manager per se, before doing your damndest to "fix" your problem (by whatever means). Set yourself a deadline, and if you don't manage to work around it by then, then talk to your manager. Be prepared for the discussion to quickly move to the topic of where else, with little human interaction, you could work in the company, because if you cannot "fix" the problem itself, what is the manager supposed to do?

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Two suggestions;

  1. We often get 'Shoulder Taps' of people asking for 'quick' things like password resets, git repo access etc; our response is that they should create a ticket, because otherwise it can't be tracked, and we might forget to do it (happens a lot. Sometimes accidentally!). Do the same with your YouTrack system.

  2. I wouldn't call your issue a 'learning disability', but more a 'learning style'. Read up on the VARK model of learning; you're probably very low on the 'Auditory' part of the scale. For me, I learn best by reading, and video and auditory are very low; so I absolutely hate it when someone says 'here's a video showing how it's done'. Give me the book instead.

A method of handling the learning style issue I use is to draw mind-maps during the meeting; very quick notes, in a non-linear fashion. Pen and paper are the best way to do it - I find any mind-mapping software to be too slow, which removes any benefits of the technique.

  • I agree with both your suggestions, especially the first one. "Shoulder taps" is the problem here much more than learning style. Any organization will go insane (as an organization) if everything is verbal. It's not fun for the individuals either, but the organization itself will go literally crazy—because it will have no memory, as an organization. – Wildcard Aug 12 '16 at 20:52
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You could record verbal discussions of specs. Technically you should have the participant's permission to record, but you could just say something simple like "do you mind if I record this to refer back to?" or something that covers you as far as permission goes but doesn't say "I can't follow a verbal discussion about specs".

Of course this doesn't help you to follow the discussion while you're discussing it, nor will it work when someone just walks past your desk and says "oh by the way, I think we should update the spec to add..." in passing.

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Absolutely! I would tell your manager privately, without delay.

Since your manager's role is to facilitate the successful operation of your team, and to more-or-less broker communication within the team, I think that it would be most appropriate to tell him/her, then let him/her communicate this to the rest of his/her group.

Okay, so your human-brain works a little differently. Now that they know, the team (as guided by its manager) should be able to readily accommodate you and to leverage the strengths that such a bias implies!

After all, we are all "fearfully and wonderfully made," and that definitely includes natural differences in how we best receive and absorb information. (Am I correct that you often see insightful things that others miss? I'd lay odds that you probably do.)

Also: dyslexia? Could be. This often comes with the territory, and, if so, say so. Your unique value in the workplace (or anywhere else) comes from you as a thinker, not in the particular way that your brain most naturally thinks.

Don't be ashamed of anything. You are what you are. (And I do not mean, in any way whatsoever, to appear patronizing. My mother is a very naturally gifted special-ed teacher, and let the record show that some of her students were geniuses.)

  • holy formatting batman. – eddie_cat Aug 11 '16 at 14:21
  • A bit of constructive criticism: the way that you typically format your answers is a major barrier to people understanding them. I suggest you cut down on quotation marks, bolding, and italics in future answers, and they will be better received and more useful to the community. I've edited this one to more typical formatting. – user45590 Aug 12 '16 at 8:11
  • p.s. you seem to be the only person who suggested discussing it with the manager, which I agree with. – user45590 Aug 12 '16 at 8:14
  • I don't know if that's a good idea or not. There are potential repercussions. It would depend greatly on how you phrased it and how good your manager is. In general, I would argue that a spec isn't a spec unless it's written down. – Speck Aug 12 '16 at 17:54
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To be a bit blunt, given that it is 'undiagnosed' as you say, I'm not sure this is a very good excuse to not be able to participate effectively in conversations. You need to speak to someone who is capable of diagnosing this, as you'll make no meaningful progress otherwise. As it stands right now, your employer could nearly fire you for not participating, as no doctor has said there is a legitimate issue. The sooner you address this directly the sooner it starts to get better.

Remember, there is nothing to be ashamed of here and nothing wrong with asking for help. You may feel it won't get better now, but I'm willing to bet you'd make more progress than you think if you started down that path.

protected by Jane S Aug 11 '16 at 21:30

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