Reduce your frustration by making powerful requests

Often we have private conversations with ourselves about what others should and should not do. But we never make overt and open requests of these people. Subsequently, when they don’t do what we expect, we’re disappointed, resentful and angry.
–Matthew Budd & Larry Rothstein

The art of making effective requests

We all need to enlist the help and cooperation of others for our lives to run smoothly. And so we are faced daily with making requests – of our spouse, our children, our co-workers, our neighbours. Do you ever feel disappointed by others when you make requests? Do they get it wrong? Or fail to follow through as expected?

Sometimes our requests are fulfilled to our satisfaction – and sometimes we are disappointed. However what we often don’t realize is: THE WAY we make a request of another has a great deal to do with whether or not it is fulfilled. Most of us have much more power as a requester than we are probably exercising.

Does this sound familiar?

A client of mine recently expressed frustration with her partner. She had asked him to power wash the patio, he agreed and then weeks passed and it wasn’t done — despite a few gentle reminders. Each time he reiterated his commitment to completing the job.

By the time she raised it with me, my client was feeling frustrated, disappointed and angry. She noticed she no longer wanted to do things for her partner, as resentment had crept into her normal affection for him. She also felt powerless; “What more can I do?” she asked.

We’ve all had those moments

I have heard similar stories from many of my clients, whether their frustrations involved a co-worker, a spouse or a neighbour. I have experienced it myself — I particularly remember trying to gain cooperation from my children around household tasks!

So I’d like to share my tips for making a clear and powerful request. My thanks for these ideas go to Fernando Flores, a Chilean philosopher and business consultant, whose work around language influenced my husband and then me. If you’d like more, I also recommend the writing of Matthew Budd and Larry Rothstein, students of Flores and authors of the book You Are What You Say.

Five things to remember

Whatever your request, these tips will assist you in making it clearly and powerfully. As you consider them, I suggest bringing to mind a specific situation to reflect on:

1. Be specific about what you want.

Before making a request of another, clarify what it is that you’re asking for. For example, let’s say you want your partner to be more supportive of your relationship with your family. What does “more supportive” mean? What behaviour/actions are you looking for? How will you assess their supportiveness? Does it mean attending family events with you? Listening to your concerns regarding family? Not begrudging the travel time and money for family visits? Or something else entirely?

Every word we use carries inherent meaning for each of us – however another person may attach a very different meaning to that same word. So we can’t assume that they will just “know” what we mean by any word or phrase. We are responsible for knowing what we want and being specific about what that means to us.

2. Ensure you both have a shared understanding of the request.

Once you know what you’re requesting, you’ll able to explore if the other person has the same understanding of the request as you do.

I’m reminded of asking my then teenaged son to clean up his room before the house-cleaners came, so they could vacuum. The first time I asked, he cleared a small area in the middle of the carpet and left the rest of the room cluttered. I was upset that he hadn’t cleared the entire floor, while he felt fully justified that he’d done what I asked. I realized that my request wasn’t specific enough – and I hadn’t clarified if his understanding of “clean up your room” was the same as mine.

The next time I asked specifically that he pick up every item of clothing or papers on the floor and put them on his bed, prior to the cleaners coming. This is what “clean up your room” meant to me. Once he learned what “clean up your room” meant to me, we had a shared understanding and the likelihood of my request being fulfilled in the way I desired was greatly increased!

Says Budd and Rothstein, “The cardinal sin of communication, which compromises all speech and relationship, is assuming that what was said is what was heard.” As the requester, it is in your best interests to ensure that the other person shares your understanding of the request.

3. Include a timeline or “by when”

Failure to attach a timeline to our request, results in frustration when the other hasn’t delivered in the timeline we want and expect. This was the difficulty of the client I mentioned earlier. She didn’t ask for a timeline when she made her request. Therefore, she and her partner never came to an agreement on one. Turns out her partner still planned to do it, however he had other commitments he deemed more important to handle first.

It is a simple yet powerful addition to request a “by when”. Sometimes we may ask for their input as to when they can do it. Other times, we may make a clear request as to when we need it done – and solicit their promise regarding the timeline. This may be particularly vital in a work situation, where deadlines must be met.

4. Secure a “yes” or “no” or “counter-offer”.

It is simplest if the other person says “yes” to our request. However negotiation is often the order of the day. Especially in our close relationships, the other person will often make a counter-offer, rather than say “no”. This happens at work too.
“I can’t take care of the kids tonight because I already have a meeting. However I’d be willing to take care of them another time soon, so you can have a break.”
“I can’t have that report completed by Friday however I can do it by Monday. If you really need it by Friday, could you take something else off my plate?”
In the event of a “no” we can always inquire whether some counter-offer is available.

5. Promise to be satisfied.

A request involves a commitment on the part of the requester to be satisfied if the conditions specified in the request are met. For example, if I ask my husband to tidy up the family room before guests come over – and he does – then it’s my job to be satisfied. If I’m not satisfied — and I complain that he didn’t do the kitchen too — he’ll feel set up for failure and unfairly criticized.

In the interests of being taken seriously in the future, we need to acknowledge a request that has been successfully completed. If you discover that your request falls short of what you REALLY wanted, then take that as a learning for yourself and adjust your requests going forward.

As you learn to make powerful requests, I predict you will feel more powerful and effective — and I guarantee you’ll be taken more seriously by others too.

Invitation to action

Think of a recent situation in which you made a request of someone and were dissatisfied with the result. Review your request — in light of these pointers — and see if you can pinpoint how you might have made your request more powerfully, to prevent this breakdown.

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