It’s no revelation that the pressures and expectations of 21st Century life are growing increasingly difficult to manage. The competition for our attention is overwhelming at times, and poor management of mental, emotional and physical resources can sabotage attempts to achieve the success we deserve.
In one way or another we all need support in order to function to our full potential, yet many of us are unknowingly unskilful at asking for this kind of assistance. In a culture that encourages stoic perseverance and rewards those who always seem to keep it together, asking for help or requesting support is not something we are taught to do, nor is it seen for what it is: a powerful tool in efficiently and effectively getting things done. You can’t do it all alone – even though you may tell yourself you have to – and learning how to make a strong, clear request is imperative if you want to avoid over commitment and burnout. Yet, while most people are struggling to make requests of others, they are paradoxically accepting requests and taking on more than their energy and attention can carry, leading to a depletion of personal resources and a dilution of impact. Equally as important as learning how to make requests is learning how to say ‘No.’
Making powerful requests
1 – Assess where you’re at
What is your current approach to making requests? This might be the first time you’ve ever asked yourself this question, so think back on moments when you have felt stretched or overcommitted, like you just have too many balls in the air at the same time. What is your response in those moments, or moments when people offer you assistance? Do you tend towards connection or disconnection? Generally, people will have one of these baseline responses:
a) No request, soldiering on alone. The message here is, ‘I don’t need help. I’m fine. I have everything under control,’ whether that is actually true or not. A subtle but tangible wall is erected between you and the person who could support you.
b) Veiled request. Often in the form of complaining or hinting about something. The message here is, ‘I want help, but I don’t want to / don’t know how to ask for it.’ This feels to the speaker like some form of outreach, but is often experienced by the listener as neediness or negativity, neither of which fills people with the desire to chip in.
c) Direct request. An active step towards asking someone for their input or assistance. The message here is, ‘I know I need help getting something done, and I’m willing to ask for it.’ This opens up the possibility of support and collaboration.
If you find yourself in the soldier zone, struggling to make requests of others, it will be challenging to simply step into the habit of making direct requests. Begin by setting a goal of making intentional requests, eg. ‘Every day this week I will make a request of someone new.’ And start small; asking someone to sort out your tax is probably a step too far.
2 – Refine your requests
Though it is in the right direction, taking the leap and making a direct request does not guarantee success. In fact, this space is rich in potential misunderstanding, miscommunication and friction. In order for a request to offer a high probability of success it needs two things:
WHO is the request of?
WHAT needs to be done? Be specific, eg. ‘Please sort this out’ vs. ‘Please call the guests and tell them the start time has been moved.’
WHEN does it need to be done by? Again, be specific.
WHY do you need this done? This gives the listener context.
HOW are you asking? Always maintain awareness of the way you are asking the question and how that might be impacting the listener.
This emerges from the WHY described in the step above. For personal or professional requests it is helpful for the other person to understand your need as it adds emotional gravity and suggests what the consequences may be of failure to complete the task. This allows them to make a fair and intelligent decision about whether to accept or decline the request.
In some business requests it may be important to frame the request in terms of the opportunity it offers the listener. No, we’re not talking about a bribe, we’re talking about the specific value – if any – to the listener if they consider a request. For example, ‘Would you be able to meet me on Wednesday at 12:00 to discuss your business? I would like to connect you with my network of fellow entrepreneurs.’ This gives the recipient CLARITY about what you are offering, allowing them to make a more informed decision in responding to the request, and invites authenticity into the engagement.
3 – Practice
As in step 1, bring some awareness to how you make requests, or whether you make them at all. Then, starting small, practice the steps above with people in your personal and work life. If you need to, invent requests until you are able to make genuine requests that truly help you. Refine them for clarity and framing and keep a note of the responses you receive. Keep practicing – you will eventually feel confident making clear, effective requests that increase your ability to make an impact.
There are a few ways one can respond to a request: accept, ask for clarification, negotiate or deny. Unfortunately, most of us move too quickly and too often to accept. While offering support is a beautiful and important part of being human, it is ultimately detrimental if we consistently pick up more than we can carry. Being able to turn down a request can be extremely difficult and the person requesting might not always be happy about it, but here some steps to help:
- Be honest with yourself. Before you respond to the other person, check in with yourself: ‘Honestly, is this something I can take on right now? Do I want to? And, if I don’t want to, would my sacrifice be beneficial to myself and the other person?’
- Ask for more information. If you’re unsure whether this is something you can do, ask for more clarity.
- Negotiate. If you can’t commit to all of the request, possibly suggest an alternative.
- Explain why. You don’t always owe someone a reason for why you are turning down a request, but a clear, honest explanation is already a form of assistance and it works towards maintaining relationship. Steer away from making up fake excuses – people can usually smell these a mile away.
- Be strong but caring. Stick to your guns – if you know you shouldn’t accept a request it is better to deal honestly with that upfront rather than taking on the very real risk that things will go awry later on. And if that means saying ‘No,’ do so with us much consideration as possible – after all, someone has had the courage to ask for your help.
However, far more common than the habitual yesses we give others are the yesses we give ourselves. ‘Shall I pick up this side project to make a bit of extra cash?’ Yes. ‘Shall I quickly check my email. Then my messages. Then Facebook?’ Yes. ‘Shall I start another e-learning course (I’ll DEFINTELY finish this one, I swear)? Yes. Inevitably we set ourselves up for failure. We are seduced by the bright lights of imagined opportunity and give ourselves permission to do everything, yet everything is impossible to do. So we end up doing nothing very well. Saying NO to distraction and being ruthless about which opportunities we say yes to helps maintain the precious reserves of attention and energy needed if we are to achieve our greatest successes.