The fine art of giving and receiving instructions: Repeat!

Recently I have been talking a lot with coaching clients about the difficulties of giving instructions clearly. The topic also pops up regularly in my Legal Project Management workshops, since communicating clearly with your project team is absolutely vital for project managers. The critical issue often is that what sounded clear as day in our own head still can be misunderstood, no matter how hard we try to be clear. As my partner puts it: “You never know what you have said until you have heard the reply”. An easy-to-use technique to come to terms with this issue is to ask the recipient to repeat your instructions back at you. And yet a lot of people are very reluctant to do so. Why is that and how does one use this technique correctly?

When I suggested to clients to ask the recipients of their instructions to repeat them, their first reaction was often along the lines of “Oh no, that feels just weird and awkward!” When I asked why, we found out that they assume that the recipient will find the request patronizing and feel insulted (“What, do you think I´m stupid? I heard you loud and clear!”). Digging deeper, I asked them if they had ever been at the receiving end of a request to repeat an instruction, and how they had felt about it. Often we found a lot of examples where they did not feel patronized at all:

  • One coaching client with a military past told me that repeating instructions is standard operating procedure, since military activity generally is considered a high-risk business (you don´t want anybody shooting in the wrong direction). He concluded that law also is a high-risk business and that it was therefore reasonable to apply the repeating technique in instructing his younger law firm colleagues.
  • Another coaching client had a supervisor who very matter-of-factly asked to hear instructions repeated. The tone of voice, mimic and posture did make the request none-patronizing, just part of “the way we do things around here”. But my coaching client was still unsure whether she herself could deliver the request in this way (her supervisor was a very matter-of-fact person).
  • So I suggested that she frame the request for repetition as a request for help, along the lines of: “That was a lot of information and I am not quite sure whether I have covered all you need to know, so could you please help me out by repeating back to me what you are supposed to do now?” My client found that this was more her style, agreed to try it out and it worked!

What is your style? How can you make the technique of asking for repetition of instructions your own and thereby communicate more clearly?

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.