Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Art of Asking For (and Getting) What You Need

A few years ago, I made sure I let my family know that I wanted to really, truly celebrate the upcoming Mother's Day. In my mind, I was expecting breakfast, served in bed, as a perfect start. The day arrived, and, like any other day, breakfast was sitting on the kitchen table. No delivery. No bed tray. Nothing special. Everyone was too busy with sports or homework, and I was disappointed that my special request wasn’t met – until I realized that I had never actually articulated my desires. I had “breakfast in bed” in my head – but the request never made it out of my mouth.

How many times do you make requests that end up in disappointments? Or even worse, you expect something that you never even asked for in the first place? It can be breakfast in bed, asking a co-worker for a copy of a document (over and over again), asking for a report and getting half of the information you needed, expecting others to know what to do without any specific guidance, or getting advice from your boss but not really the advice you needed to get the job done.

As the song tells us, “you can’t always get what you want” – but here are five good tips that can tip the odds in your favor:

1- An effective request requires a committed speaker and a committed listener. Always ask for what you want and how you want it, rather than assuming that it is obvious to others. Make your request clear, and make sure you get the full attention you need. Stop making casual requests in the hallway, while distracted looking at your screen, or “by the way” requests. How you ask for things will determine how you will receive it in return!

2- An effective request must include a clear and shared understanding of your standards for satisfaction.  Share your conditions of satisfaction in order to have your request fulfilled exactly as you expect it to be. Provide all the details you are thinking of, unless it is a situation in which you are flexible and open to surprises. When I asked my son to clean his room, without going into details, he did just that. Later I learned that “clean” meant one thing to me and something totally different to him (hiding things in the closet or under the desk). Yes, after a while, people learn routines and they know how you like your coffee or what you need in a daily report, but until then it is important to be as clear as you can.

3- An effective request must include a clear deadline and a realistic agreement with those being asked. Let others know the time frame to meet your request. Things such as "at your earliest convenience", "as soon as possible" or "promptly" are not precise enough. What seems obvious to you might not be to the other person.  It is always good to pre-establish checkpoints for long-term requests to make sure things are on track.

4- An effective request must include the right context and mood shared by all parties involved. Make sure the right mood is set for your request. It is a fact that the right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation. It is preferable to wait to make a request than to just make it when the context or the emotions are not the adequate ones. In this case is better to take a break - this could be a request in itself - and come back for a fresh new start later on.

5- An effective request needs that those you are involving are capable of delivering. Verify that those you are making the request from have the capacity to fulfill it the way you expect. Don't just assume; check and verify with them.  This is good practice. If you are asking someone with a broken leg, on crutches, to go to get you a coffee with lots of milk from the busy cafeteria down the block, and bring it to you in the next 5 minutes before your next meeting, you might end up getting a late and cold latte!

The following Mother’s Day, I knew better. Sitting around the table, paying full attention to each member of my family, and in the right mood, I said, "I have a request to make for Mother's Day. I want to have breakfast served in bed on a tray with a red rose, with fresh squeezed orange juice, 2 scrambled eggs, 1 wheat toast with fat free butter. I want it at 9:00 am". Then I checked that everyone's schedule would allow for it, that they understood what I wanted and why it was important to me, and that they were ok with it. Every year now I get my tray in bed, and unless I want something different, I don’t need to request it anymore. The rest of the day is filled with surprises, which is always good too.

I didn’t want to leave my requests for my special day to chance – and now, using these five tips, you don’t have to leave any day to chance.

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