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The Art and Science of Making an Effective Request

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

I recently hosted a Facebook Live sharing insights, strategies, and concrete examples of how to make an effective request. If you missed it, you can catch the 20-minute replay in the One Eleven Leadership private Facebook group. If you prefer to get the CliffsNotes version, here are the key takeaways that you can put into practice right away at work or at home.

An important place for us to start is understanding that at the root of every complaint is an unfulfilled expectation. Whether it’s lamenting traffic on a Saturday afternoon, being frustrated that the kids just won’t go to bed, or audibly sighing while on hold with customer service yet again, it’s because there’s an expectation that it shouldn’t be the case. At this point, you have two choices to move forward: 1) shift your expectation, or 2) turn the complaint into a request.

What a request is not

A request is not: “it would be really nice if the house were clean” or “I would really love it if someone reached out to the board members to get their input for this report.” Or, one of my biggest pet peeves, “If it were me, I would have had it done this morning so we can send it off for editing.” These are statements, largely passive-aggressive ones, that don’t actually clarify what you’re asking for or what the unmet need is. As the person on the receiving end, I don’t quite know what the call to action is. Also, I’m not you and I bring my own unique perspective, skills, and experiences to the task which are an asset and not something to dismiss with “well, if it were me…” Just had to get that off my chest. Anyway, moving on.

What a request is

A request has four possible responses (we’re just discussing baseline requests now and will move to what makes it an effective one momentarily):

  • Yes

  • No

  • Yes, but later

  • Yes, but negotiate the terms

To put this into context, if I say, “I am thirsty” or “it would be really nice to have something to drink,” those are statements that cannot appropriately be responded to with any of the options listed above. However, if I ask, “will you please get me water?” the options are now in play as potential replies:

  • Yes

  • No

  • Yes, but after I finish this call

  • Yes, but can I bring it in a sippy cup instead of a glass because that’s the only thing that’s clean right now

**At this point, I would like to add in the disclaimer that as the mother of two young children, I have no evidence that this approach works with kids, but should feasibly work with any other rational beings.

Making a request effective

The key to making a request effective is specificity. Brene’ Brown often uses the phrase, “clear is kind,” and I think that’s a great mantra to embrace when talking about requests. Being clear with a request means providing details regarding who, what, where, when, why, and/or how.

Back to our water example, “will you please get me water” meets the criteria I discussed above so it qualifies as a legitimate request (woohoo!), but it’s very ambiguous and leaves too much room for confusion and miscommunication (boo!). For example, if I’m a gardener, I might bring you a hose because I assume you need the water for the plants, but maybe you are actually giving your dog a bath and needed a bucket of water for the task. Ruh-roh.

How often does it happen that we think our ask is so obvious, so simple to complete because it makes perfect sense in our own head, but it goes completely awry? It’s often because we forget that everyone is bringing their own filters, experiences, and perspectives to the conversation. Although it’s what we love about collaboration and working with diverse teams, it necessitates more clarity to ensure everyone is moving in the same direction.

Providing the “why” to your request helps to provide context and helps the receiver better understand the need so they can more appropriately rise to the occasion. For example, “Husband, may I please have a glass of water? My allergies are acting up and my throat is parched. I have a Facebook Live at 8:30 pm so if you could bring it sometime before then so I can have it on-hand for the session, that would be super helpful.” Now he knows exactly what the need is and how to successfully meet the request so it’s a win-win for both of us!

I've made the effective request…now what?

After making the request, check to see if there are any questions. If you don’t already, now is a good time to start cultivating a culture of welcoming them and encouraging people to seek clarification at any point in the process. A former colleague used to call her reports boomerangs because she would turn them in, I would edit, she would resubmit, I would send them back with more revisions and updates. It was discouraging and frustrating for her. It was discouraging and frustrating for me. No one felt good about the situation and it certainly didn’t lead to better deliverables. Looking back, had I done a better job of providing more clarity about the context and expectations, we might have reduced much of the back-and-forth. Additionally, if she had felt more empowered to ask for more clarification at the start or even checking in midway through to make sure things were on track, we could have avoided that boomerang situation.

Lastly, check in to see if there is any support that people need to be able to complete the request successfully. What are the potential obstacles or issues that might impede or are impeding their progress? For example, if my husband doesn’t know where the glasses are, he might spend a lot of time looking through all of the cabinets just to bring me a glass of water. If you’ve asked a new employee to submit an expense report, but they are not yet familiar with the process, they are going to feel anxious about it, but they may not want to ask for help from you because they don’t want to appear incompetent. Instead, they will probably waste a lot of time trying to figure it out themselves or maybe they would ask a colleague who may or may not give them accurate information. If you can identify the barriers early on, you can provide the information, training, resources, time, staffing, etc. that’s needed to move things along more effectively.

Five caveats to keep in mind

1. Only be specific in the areas that you really need it to be. For example, I didn’t tell my husband how or from where to get the water. If he decides to go to the well or make a run to Target, that’s his choice. Don’t judge the way they choose to do it if that works for them as long as the outcome meets the request. #LetItGo

2. If you find yourself saying, “Well, he should have just known…,” notice you have an unmet expectation. I asked that he bring the glass of water before the 8:30 pm session, so if he brings it at 8:29 pm, I can’t be huffy, roll my eyes, and say, “well, it’s about time.” I can either shift my expectation or turn it into a specific request. Perhaps I could say something like, “When I do Facebook Lives, I start preparing myself physically and mentally about 30 minutes beforehand so I should have clarified that I needed the glass of water by 8 pm. I’ll be sure to specify that next time or feel free to ask if I don’t remember.”

3. Although clear is kind, too much clarity feels restrictive and suffocating so give space where there’s opportunity. For example, if it’s really important that the project be done by a certain date, but there can be flexibility in how it’s accomplished, state that. Note that it may not be how you would do it because “I would have started a week ago and not waited until the last minute,” but you have to let that go (see #1). If there’s a specific process or protocol that needs to be followed for the assignment, but the outcome can be delivered as a PowerPoint, distributed as a memo, verbally shared in a meeting, or done as a diorama, say that. People like structure, but choice. I hear children do too, but, again, I really have no idea.

4. If you notice people are getting frustrated or saying things like, “can you just tell me what you want me to do?” or “if you want it done a certain way, maybe you should just do it yourself,” something is not working. Pause, regroup, check-in, ask people what they think you are asking of them, apologize if something wasn’t clear, and be direct if something is misaligned before moving forward. Start the exploration with a “what” question instead of a “why” to focus on problem solving instead of blame (see “Myths of Management” for more on this). For example, instead of asking “why has this not been done yet?” try “what was your understanding of the timeline?” Perhaps you discover that when you said, “ASAP,” you were thinking that meant by the end of today and the other person understood it as sometime this week. Once you identify the disconnect, you can make a new plan to forge ahead.

5. Finally (and this is the point that was cut off in the video), continue to check in with yourself. If you find yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself if that is an expectation that can be shifted/released or if it’s something that you need to turn into a request. It is an ongoing process and not a one-and-done situation.

Let me know what your most impactful takeaways are around this important topic. I would love to hear how you're applying these strategies and techniques to your personal and professional life!

If you (or someone you know) could benefit from working with a certified coach and trained facilitator who will provide customized, holistic, and tireless support as you or your team identify and take action towards your goals, please reach out to One Eleven Leadership to set up a complimentary consultation.

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