Making Effective Requests

Requests are a powerful tool for making things happen. As a business grows from a small group working on a single project to a flourishing office full of competing priorities, effective requests become more important. When team members (and especially managers) learn to make effective requests, expectations and deliverables are clear, and it is easier to keep projects on track.

Components of a Request

An effective request has these components:

  • Who: The request is made to a specific person
  • What: It describes the action to be performed
  • When: It includes a time frame
  • Why: The reason for the request is clear
  • How: Ask directly, and consider the listener’s feelings

Sloppy Requests

Sloppy requests occur when hints are thrown out without asking for something directly. They omit at least one, and often many of the Who, What, When, Why, and How. Some examples are:

  • It seems like this is not quite finished.
  • Would someone be able to take care of this?
  • We need to get this project back on track.
  • I have to present to the client next week.

Sloppy requests put the responsibility for clarifying on the listener, and they can also give the impression that the requestor doesn’t feel justified in asking.  Some people feel hinting or being vague is a “nicer” way to ask for something. Most people prefer direct requests, as long as they are made respectfully. The way that each person makes a request is influenced by the way that they observed in their family and previous jobs.

Considering the Listener’s Feelings

When making a request, it is often helpful to consider what the listener’s current experience is.  And in making a response, considering the requestor’s emotional state is just as valuable.

These two statements are likely to generate very different responses from the listener: “ I need you to start working on this now; it’s really important that I get this done for the client right away” vs. “I know you’ve been working really hard to finish what you’re working on, and that your new baby has been keeping you up late. I need to talk about this new work, because I have to get back to the client about it today. Is there a time in the next hour when we could sit down and talk about it for 20 minutes? I know it will interrupt you, but I’d really appreciate it.”

Likewise, the listener can do the same for the requestor: “You sound really stressed about getting back to this client. I know you’re working really hard to land this job. I’m in the middle of finishing something that I’d like to wrap up before I shift my attention to something else. Could we sit down and talk about it in an hour?”


Response to Requests

When a request is made, the listener can either:

  • Agree
  • Ask for Clarification
  • Negotiate
  • Decline

Agreement is the simplest response in the moment, and some people are inclined to agree immediately, and then assess if it’s really possible later. When that happens, the listener can end up agreeing to something that isn’t possible, which will be frustrating for everyone in the long run. True agreement comes when the listener thinks through what is necessary to satisfy the request, and agrees from a place of knowing what effort will truly be required of them.

Asking for clarification is a great tool for the listener to use to help assess what will be necessary to satisfy the request. This is a great response to a sloppy request: “I’m not sure when you need this to be done by; what’s the deadline?” or “Do you need just a prototype finished, or something ready for production by then?”

The listener has the option of negotiating with the requestor if they think they won’t have enough time, or have ideas for how to do something better/faster/differently. “I don’t think I can finish what you’re asking for in the time I have – what if we did it this way instead?”

If a request comes from a manager, it may actually be a demand, where the listener is expected to comply without question. If that is the case, the manager and the listener benefit if the manager makes it clear from the beginning that they are making a demand. Phrases like “If you have time…”, or “Do you think you could…” make it sound like the listener has a choice – if the task is a demand, it is generally easier for everyone if the manager says something like “I have something important that I’d like you to do right away.” That makes it clear that the manager is exercising their authority to re-arrange work priorities. It may be that there is still some negotiation that needs to take place before the listener can agree fully: “I can finish that tomorrow, but the other project I’m working on will slip by a day. Is that OK?”

Finally, a listener can decline a request: “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that.

Generally the listener won’t want to flat-out decline a request from a manager, and it’s helpful to offer a different option if that’s the case: “It’s not possible to finish that in the time you’re asking for. How about if I got you a mockup by then, and then we agree on how long it’ll take to finish it?” It’s also possible to ask for help: “I don’t think I can finish that alone, but if you let Alicia work on it with me for the next two days, I think we could finish it together.”

* * *

Agreeing on a common language for requests in the workplace gets everyone on the same page so you can get things done together more effectively.

The concepts of effective requests and sloppy requests, and the components of an effective request are all from the book: Coaching to the Human Soul by Alan Sieler.

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at StartupHappiness.com. She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.

1 thought on “Making Effective Requests”

  1. What a great skill to become proficient at! I think the response part is something that most people (including myself) could become more disciplined with. Thank you for sharing your wisdom here!

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