Not getting what you want? Why ‘would you mind’, ‘shall we’, and ‘I’ll try’ won’t help you with your direct requests

The world is more interconnected than ever before, so you’d think that direct communication would be a skill we’d become adept at from an early age. Not so, it seems. Many people seem to have missed learning or actively avoided learning it: the skill of making a simple, direct request and giving a simple, unequivocal response in return. In this article we look at why it’s an important skill for business leaders, and how you turn vague, indirect communication into clear, direct, unequivocal communication.

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.
Winston Churchill

What does a request sound like?

You say something like, “Please do X (task) by Y (date)”

Easy, you may think. What could go wrong with that? Well in the UK, we are often brought up to think it rude to make direct requests, so we spend a lot of time fudging and padding: “Do you think you could just…”, “Would you mind awfully…”, “Shall we try to…” etc.. Or we drop hints: “It would be great if somebody would…”, or get sarcastic: “Is anybody ever going to…? Eventually we may even crack and have a tantrum: “I’ve had it! Doesn’t anybody ever do anything around here?”

Some cultures of course would just laugh at this. Most Dutch people, or Germans, or US citizens, have very little trouble making straight requests, and think we in the UK are ridiculously woolly about such things. But even they have trouble with the responses…

What does a response sound like?

There are only three clear direct responses to a straight request:

You may make a promise: “Yes” – full accountability. You’ll get it done whatever the circumstances, and if you fail, you’ll take the consequences on the chin.

You may decline the request: “No” – you honestly don’t see yourself doing it, and are willing to take the consequences of saying “no”.

Or you may make a counter-offer: “I won’t do X by Y, but I will do it by Z”. You think carefully about whether you can do it and under what circumstances and make a proposal to the other person.

If you first discipline yourself to make clear, direct requests and responses like this, and then train everyone around you to do likewise, it will make a bigger difference to your business than you could ever imagine.

Some hints for improving your direct request skills:

  • You need not just to make well-formed requests, but also to manage the responses, especially at first. Many people will be vague and not make a clear promise, decline or counteroffer, and even if they apparently do, they may forget or let it slide.
  • You will want to resist managing their response, too – why should you do their job for them? Well, because you are a leader, training others in a new, more effective working skill. They won’t get it right straight away and will need coaching and hands-on management for a while.
  • There is a danger for everyone at first of over-promising – train yourself and others around you to check their diaries and make realistic promises, rather than just always saying “yes”.
  • If you say “no”, someone might not like it. You have to be willing to take the consequences of this (fear of this is one reason we fudge).
  • As a leader, be prepared to accept a “no” sometimes, too – your response to this is critical in training others to give honest responses.
  • Learning to make good counter-offers is the key: “I can’t talk now, but come back at 3pm and I’ll be able to give you my full attention”, “It’s missed the post today, but I’ll send it special delivery tomorrow” or “I can’t fit this in to my current workload, but if it’s more important than X task, I could prioritise it. Which would you prefer me to complete first?

This article is adapted from a section of Kate Mercer’s 2016 book ‘A Buzz in the Building: How to build and lead a brilliant organisation’.   

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