How to Ask for What You Really Want

July 29, 2013 — Leave A Comment


“Sam, it’d be great if you could connect with Cecilia about all this. We need to get this resolved.”

“I’d like to see you take more initiative in your role. Be less passive, and really take the bull by the horns. Can you do that?”

“Joe, I need you to work on being less abrasive in team meetings. We can disagree without being harsh. Agreed?”

These are all examples of weak requests.

Making Direct Requests is one of the least talked-about leadership skills out there, yet learning to do it well resolves a whole host of common leadership challenges.

Take Sam, for example. What the leader is assuming (but didn’t say) in the request above is that Sam will connect with Cecilia within the next two days. The leader fully expects the issue to be resolved immediately. From the leader’s point of view, the urgency of the matter is obvious to all. Surely Sam recognizes that fact, doesn’t he?

So when two weeks go by and Sam hasn’t acted, the leader gets deeply frustrated with Sam and begins to question his honesty and work ethic.

But what the leader doesn’t realize is that Sam has five other fires he’s working to put out in addition to the issue with Cecelia. All of them feel urgent. And since the leader’s request didn’t include a deadline, Sam assumed he could put it off a week or two and address the other high-pressure situations first.

Sam didn’t drop the ball here. The leader did.

Making Direct Requests sounds simple on paper, but it takes more intentionality and forethought than you’d expect. Here are the three steps to making your requests direct.

1. Get Clear. The two key questions to ask yourself here are, “What do you really want to happen?” and “How will you know when it does?” In the second example above, the request is to “take more initiative,” “be less passive,” and “take the bull by the horns,” but what does any of that really mean? What specific behavior on the part of your team member would signal to you that she is taking more initiative or being less passive? Do you want her to voice her opinion in meetings without having to be asked? Or is your desire more about her setting clear deadlines with her projects and holding to them?

However you answer those two questions, make that the request.

2. Be Explicit. Stop using euphemisms or soft-sounding phrases such as “It’d be great if you could…” or “We need to…” or “I’d like you to…” The proper phrase to use in every request is “Will you…?” Using softer forms of request often unintentionally come across as suggestions, not requests.

3. Be Specific. What measurable action do you want them to accomplish by when? Don’t assume that either the action or the timetable is obvious. It may be perfectly obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to anyone else.

Just for grins, let’s pull all three steps together using the third request above ~ “Joe, I need you to work on being less abrasive in team meetings. We can disagree without being harsh. Agreed?” How could you make this into a strong direct request?

First, get clear on what you really want Joe to do. How would you know he’s being less abrasive? What specific behavior change are you looking for? Also, what’s Joe’s timetable for making this happen?

Once you’ve answered those questions, the request becomes clear: “Joe, I need you to work on being less abrasive in team meetings. I want all of us to be free to disagree with each other, but do so without being harsh. So here’s my request: For the next 3 team meetings, will you practice keeping your voice low and calm, and keep all of your comments focused on the ideas being presented, and not on the people presenting them? Will you do that? After three meetings, I’ll check in with you to review how it’s going. Agreed?”

Not only is the request more clear, it’s also more developmental (Bonus!), as it naturally adds in a level of accountability and feedback into the request.

How effective is your team at making direct requests?

Michael Warden

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