As an early reader, I was constantly devouring books, taking special note of the ones that made me laugh and the ones that made me think. One of my early favorites? Amelia Bedelia. For those unfamiliar, the Amelia Bedelia book series was written by Peggy Parish as a a way to explain idioms and figurative language to kids. For example, when asked to make a sponge cake…she includes real sponges. When asked to draw the drapes, her boss returns to a picture of the windows, drapes still wide open. The bumbling housekeeper was endearing and hardworking, but never seemed to understand precisely what she should be doing. As I moved into a role where I got to call the shots, I realized that Amelia Bedelia and her misunderstandings are far more common than we could ever imagine. So how do you, as a leader or supervisor of students, ensure that you’re made clear?

Present Your Instructions in a Number of Ways. Our default mechanism for giving instructions or guidance is to tell people, or to speak; occasionally those instructions are given as a written list, and increasingly detailed instructions are being given via email or even text. For some, these options are fine. But consider varying needs of those you might be working with- those who have learning differences, those on the autism disorder spectrum, or those for whom English is a secondary (or tertiary, and so forth) language- they may need instructions a different way. Are you prepared to take additional measures to ensure that you’re understood? Consider creating videos that walk students or staff through processes, or perhaps including pictures of what a properly completed task looks like, to ensure that the end product is understood.

Truly Open the Floor for Questions. I end nearly every email that I send with “if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out- I’m happy to help!” I find this to be far more powerful and persuasive than “let me know if you have any questions,” and too many don’t even do that! Recognizing that there is a possibility for misunderstanding, and letting others know that you’re open to clarification can be key to making sure that you’re understood. It takes vulnerability and an admission of fallibility to admit that we don’t know everything; make sure that this realization can be made in a safe and non-judgmental space. As you address questions that come up:

  • Dedicate the time required to answer questions as thoroughly as possible. If you have time constraints, let your inquirer know so no one feels rushed.
  • Devote as much focus and attention to the individual as possible. No multitasking!
  • Ensure that your nonverbal cues match what you’re saying. Using the words “take all the time you need!” while checking the clock or fidgeting is disingenuous, and may damage your credibility as someone who can address worries.

Hold Firm if Clear Instructions Have Already Been Provided. Occasionally, I’ll work with students (or colleagues, for that matter!) who have been provided clear instructions, but haven’t read or reviewed them. What should you do if the questions you’re receiving are clearly addressed elsewhere, and the questions you’re receiving are a coded way of asking you to complete the process for them?

  1. First, assume positive intent! Not everyone is trying to cut corners or get around doing work; sometimes, someone truly doesn’t know!
  2. Draw their attention to where a process is listed elsewhere; perhaps provide a link or attachment if that’d be helpful.
  3. Ask if they understood everything detailed there; occasionally, you’re being consulted because a part of those instructions was unclear.
  4. If all these options are exhausted, then you may have to have a conversation with an individual about your expectations for them in their chosen role, and how following instructions in full is included.

Play to Each Individual’s Strengths. Those who remember reading Amelia Bedelia may recall that she had one area in which she was unquestionably talented: baking. For the record, I never understood this as a child. Instructions like “cream,” “fold,” and “whip” have wildly different meanings in the kitchen than they do anywhere else. But whatever the reason, she was always able to figure this out; and her impeccable knowledge around an oven always seemed to save her from getting fired at the end of a largely misunderstood day. Everyone in an organization has a skill something like this- whizzes at Excel, abilities to charm anyone into volunteering, skilled negotiators. As much as you can, play to the strengths of these individuals so they can naturally work “in their element.” In addition to allowing people to do what they’re best at, taking the time to learn what they like the most or are best at shows an attentiveness to the people around you that strengthens your clout and appreciation as a leader. So take the extra time to learn where your team’s strengths are- it could pay off more than you think!

What other tips do you have for making sure you’re understood? 

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2 thoughts on “Have You Made Yourself Clear? Leadership Lessons from Amelia Bedelia

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