How to understand a bad communicator: active listening

Boss and stenographer, 1896, MetLife Office NY

It takes two to communicate! How do you work with people whose communications are incomprehensible?

Maybe they send you cryptic emails ... smother you with gobbledegook ... expect you to read their minds ... give you mixed messages ... confuse opinion with fact ... 

Whatever the cause, you just don't understand what they mean.

And whatever their communication crimes, the solution is the same: active listening. That's much more than just absorbing the words they utter. It means playing an active part in the communication, taking the lead so that you get the information you need.

1. Pay close attention: the message may be buried somewhere in a grunt or a raised eyebrow or a P.S.

2. Prompt them for clarification.

  • So what do you need me to do right now?
  • I don't quite understand.
  • What do you mean, exactly?
  • Who? What? When? Where? How much? Why? 

3. Paraphrase what you think the other person means. Don't repeat their exact phrases: use your own words. Find an approach that feels comfortable for you.

  • So what you're saying is...
  • Have I got this right? ...
  • I need help here. Do you mean that ...

RESULT: you get the information straight.

BONUS: you make those bad communicators aware of the problem and may even help them to improve.


Image: Boss and stenographer, 1896, MetLife Office New York.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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