When it comes to how to talk to your boss with confidence, there’s a popular cliché that’s been going around in corporate America for years:
“This is how we talk to our friends.”
The problem with this phrase, of course, is that many of us are not actually friends with our bosses.
In fact, there are usually a lot of things about them that we don’t like.
Whether they’re bad-tempered, arrogant, gossipy, indecisive, dishonest, self-important, defensive, or more, we still want to be able to talk to them without being belittled.
What this means is that many people choose to keep their mouths shut in situations where they’re dealing with a senior manager or a key decision-maker at work.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge amount that we can learn about speaking to managers, especially if you’re a junior employee.
Your thoughts and behaviors as a junior employee — how you behave in meetings, for example, or what you say when you’re in your boss’s office — can have a huge impact on how you’re perceived.
Here’s how to change the way you interact with your boss:
Get clear about your boss
“Being clear about who you’re talking to is a huge way to prepare to talk to someone,” says Margery Reyman, a consultant with the leadership consultancy IDEO.
“Clear about the expectations of the conversation (who you’re talking to when you’re supposed to be talking to them, what you want to get out of the meeting) is so much easier.”
She also recommends asking your boss about who you’re going to be speaking to, so you’re clear about whether the person is just there to collect paperwork, or whether they’re there to discuss an important topic.
“You can’t let the awkwardness of someone standing in the doorway dominate your experience with them,” she says.
As an alternative, you can explain to your boss that you’re not really sure who they’re there to see, or how to address them.
Just introduce yourself to the person, explain that you have a few minutes to catch up on a project, and tell them that you’ll return to their office when you’ve got everything in order.
Not all meetings are about work. “There are plenty of times when managers want to meet to discuss more personal issues,” says Reyman.
For example, a manager might need to address some family or personal issues and would prefer to keep that meeting quiet. Or, the person may want to discuss some challenging news.
So, “if there’s something that they need to tell you, they may want you to keep it confidential, but they want to talk to you about it,”
Reyman says. “Sometimes it’s just easier to have a short meeting with them, and then you can go back and talk about work as needed.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
You should always strive to ask questions during a meeting so that you’re making the most of the opportunity to have a conversation with your boss.
The reason that it’s so important to ask questions is that it builds your credibility and earns your boss’s respect.
“Your boss might not know as much as you do about a certain issue or topic,” says Reyman.
“If you ask questions about the topic, you can help your boss.”
“Curious managers want their employees to learn new things, but curious employees also want to help them understand things they don’t know,” says Jean Coppola, a career coach with the C’17 Coaching group at Stanford University.
She adds that asking questions is key to building your boss’s respect for you.
According to Coppola, this is a great way to communicate that you’re invested in your boss’s success and that you’re motivated to succeed as well.
So if you’re meeting with your boss for a review meeting, for example, “it’s really important to ask how you can help them succeed,” she says.
In other words, you shouldn’t expect your boss to know the answer to every question.
Don’t assume that they’re a walking encyclopedia who can solve any problems you have. Instead, simply ask for their advice on a specific problem you’re facing, and note that you’d appreciate a little advice on your part, as well.
Say thank you
Lastly, you should always try to show some appreciation to your boss.
They’ve likely put in a lot of effort to get you to this point, and so “say ‘thank you,’ even if you disagree with something they’ve said or done,” advises Reyman. “Just don’t go into a rant.”
Simply letting your boss know that you appreciate their support and efforts can go a long way, she says.
So, the next time you have a work-related meeting, don’t be afraid to let your boss know what you’re working on.
Because, when it comes to building trust, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.