Hi, Suelin. Here are some suggestions, not
recommendations, because each one might make
things either better or worse, and you know more about your situation and
the people involved.
You can try not to reward him for using an angry tone of voice.
by saying you'd do extra work on the weekend and then working really
hard over the next few days. This can influence him, either consciously
or subconsciously, to act in a demanding way in future.
Possibly he says, "I try not to talk angrily to my employees, but
I don't know what comes over me... I can't help it!" It's not an excuse --
he's ultimately responsible for his own behaviour --
but what comes over him could be subconscious conditioning from being
rewarded in the past for such behaviour.
Instead, you can either give him the same level of service regardless of his
tone of voice, or else give him better service when he talks in a way that's
nicer than what's been usual for him in recent months. If he says politely
"Would you mind doing this?" you can act the way you've been acting when
he talks in a demanding way: you can say rapidly, "I'll make it my top
priority!" and rush off and work really hard on it and try to get it to him
as soon as possible. If he acts demanding, you can still agree to do the work
but in a normal, calm way without any quick promises or extra-hard work.
I also have difficulty estimating how long it will take me to do things.
It's good that you're working on it in an organized way. You can try to
work out estimates for all your work, and for work that might be
assigned in future, before your boss comes and asks you.
You can have rules like "if it's something I've never done before,
always add one more extra week to the estimate." If your boss
asks you when, if you don't already have an answer
you can say something like "I'll work out a time estimate
and email it to you later today." You can decide that once you've said
something like that, you won't back down.
You can say to him "I'm sorry, but I don't have a time estimate for that
right now. I can get it to you later today." You can insist on adequate time alone to
think it over before giving him the estimate.
If you give him a time estimate and he argues and claims it can be
done faster, you can say "You may be right. Nevertheless, that is my
estimate." If he wants to write down his own estimate rather than
yours, that's up to him; but you don't have to make it your estimate.
If you do get it done faster, you can say to him "You were
right! It didn't take me as long as I'd thought." Also, when he argues
that it can be done faster, that might be a good time to discuss with
him what details he wants included, with the purpose of trying to find
out whether some things you think are necessary really aren't needed
and can be skipped.
Maybe you're following all the rules to avoid being
criticized, but maybe other workers cut a lot of corners, get criticized
occasionally for breaking rules, but are nevertheless
generally more appreciated because
they get stuff done faster. Or on the other hand, maybe in the long
run it's better to follow all the rules and the corner-cutters are going to get in serious
trouble at some point for some rule they break. It's hard to know.
Anyway, you could consider whether there are ways to do the work
faster. For example, suppose a report contains a sentence like
"We've received 12 emails about this" and you're tempted to spend
10 minutes finding and counting the emails again to make sure that's exactly true.
A faster alternative might be to change the sentence to
"We've received about 12 emails about this", or even just to delete
that sentence from the report. If your boss were right there you could
ask him whether you should bother spending the 10 minutes or not.
For some things, perhaps you could make a list, and give your boss
the report saying something like "Here's a preliminary version.
Which of these details is it worthwhile my taking the time to fill in?"
For something that takes 10 minutes it might be better to just do it
rather than put it on a list like that, but you might list things that
take longer, or group things into categories, e.g. "Re-check 8 numbers
in various sentences -- 5 hours." (Give an estimate that's longer than
you imagine it will take, because probably some of them will end up
taking longer than you expect.) It seems possible that what he really
wants is a shorter, simpler report with fewer details that takes less time
Some of the techniques I use are from Thomas Gordon's "Effectiveness Training" system, as
described in books such as "Leader Effectiveness Training" by Thomas Gordon or
"Effectiveness Training for Women" by Linda Adams. If you want to use
those techniques it might be better to
practice them in interactions with family and friends first and/or learn
them by reading a whole book or taking a course rather than suddenly trying
a technique in a critical situation such as interaction with your boss when you're
not used to using them. I find these techniques indispensible (e.g. Active Listening,
I-messages and Switching Gears).
When he says "When? WHEN?" you can do Active Listening. That means using
empathy and trying to understand how he feels, his point of view and what his
underlying message is, encouraging him to express his message in more detail,
and showing that you understand. In Active Listening you need to read his
tone of voice and body language, not just his words.
Suelin (Active Listening): You really need it fast.
Boss: Yes, I really need it fast!
Suelin: I'll get on it right away.
Suelin (Active Listening): You really need it fast.
Boss: No! I need a firm time estimate that I can give the client, and that we can stick to!
Suelin: Ah. I'd better carefully think through the different parts of the project, and give you a carefully-calculated time estimate later today.
Boss: No -- the client is waiting on the phone! I need to know right now!
Suelin: OK, how about telling them six weeks just to be on the safe side? That way if I get it done sooner it'll be ahead of schedule.
In the first (fictional) example, the Active Listening is right on.
What happens more often with active listening is in the second example, where her attempt to understand is close but not exact. The person then usually reacts by expressing their message in more detail, because they can tell you're trying
to understand. For Active Listening to work, you can't just use pre-planned words or words that have worked on that person in the past -- you need to use an open mind and try to get the message from the person at that moment.
When done successfully, it tends to lead to the other
person calming down. If they get louder, it's usually because they're frustrated
because you didn't understand their message well enough, but then they usually
also give you more information when they get louder so it's easier to make
another attempt and show that now you understand, and then if you get it
right (or close enough) they tend to calm down.
I probably wouldn't set up a separate meeting to discuss tone of voice.
I would handle it by the way I react in the moment. If his tone of voice
is hurting you so much that you don't feel you can muster the empathy to
do Active Listening effectively, you can do an I-message instead,
in response to his loud question, e.g.
- I need to discuss this using calm voices.
- When you speak in that tone of voice I feel stressed, and then I can't think clearly.
- I'm uncomfortable when you use that tone of voice.
- I'm feeling stressed by your tone of voice, so I need to take a five-minute break to calm down, and then I'll be able to discuss this with you calmly.
When you do an I-message, the other person will probably react, and you need to be ready for this and if at all possible do Active Listening in response to their reaction, even if they get louder -- unless they're bothering you so much that you just can't muster the empathy, and then another I-message can be used. Switching back and forth between I-messages and Active Listening is called Switching Gears. When you demonstrate that you're willing to really listen to the other person right after your I-message, the other person is much more likely to be open to your message.
When you do the Active Listening, you (normally) don't take back what you said; you just
show understanding and empathy towards the other person.
Suelin (I-message): I'm uncomfortable when you use that tone of voice.
Boss: How dare you talk to me like that?
Suelin (Active Listening): Sorry, I didn't mean to sound critical.
Boss (triumphantly): Well, you did!
Suelin (Active Listening): OK, you win. Let's get back to what you were trying to ask me about just now. You want to discuss the works approval project?
These are just examples I made up. There are probably better examples in the books
I mentioned. The same words with a different tone of voice would usually require a
different Active Listening response.
As I see it, saying "Sorry, I didn't mean to sound critical" is not taking back
the original statement. It doesn't mean "Sorry -- I take it back." or "I was wrong".
It only means "I feel sorry that my message caused you to feel negative
emotions. My intention was not to claim there was anything inherently wrong
with your tone of voice, but only to inform you about my own feelings, that is,
the effect that tone of voice has on me."
It's a subtle difference.
I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful.