My manager responds in silence when an employee (me) asks a question—whether over the phone or in his office at the meeting table. I am deployed to Afghanistan for one year, and I am talking about the boss back in the States. Without any comment from him at all, no one knows how the boss really feels. – Federal manager from the Department of Defense

The sound of silence is hard to interpret face to face, and it’s even more difficult to interpret that silence when separated by several time zones. However, it’s likely that your boss is unaware of the impact the silence is having on you and your team members.

As hard as it may be, you need to have a difficult conversation with your manager in which you address the issue and together come up with solutions for moving forward.

Begin the conversation by offering your boss some insights into the problem. Being stationed overseas gives you a perfect – and perhaps more diplomatic – opening such as:

“I am not complaining, but being stationed in Afghanistan is difficult for many reasons. One of those is the lack of face-to-face contact with you and other colleagues back in the U.S. For example, you’re probably not aware that I am uncertain as to how I should interpret your silence during conference calls.”

Then, be prepared to offer some helpful suggestions about how to resolve the issue, such as encouraging him to be more transparent about the triggers that cause him to remain silent. For example, when your manager is processing information during a call, ask if he might let you and your team members know that he’s listening and considering options. Or if he’s unable to address a certain issue, ask that he let the team know that the topic is inappropriate for conversation over the phone and will need to be discussed at another time.

If you believe that your boss will be resistant to this feedback, I suggest reaching out to another team member to test your assumption, to outline an outreach approach and to brainstorm some additional solutions. Pick someone you trust, and be sure they have experience to offer additional insights and ideas.

Of course, these are general suggestions. You are in the best position to offer concrete ideas based on your experience with your boss and your understanding of the broader team and agency context.  

Good luck!

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