Powerful requests

Jan 11, 2021
Photo by Evelina Zhu from Pexels

Ever have a conversation like this?

Supervisor: “Can I ask you something?”

Designer: “Uh, I guess.”

Supervisor: “Can you show more teamwork.” 

Designer: “What do you mean?”

Supervisor: “You know, teamwork!”

Another unclear and un-doable request. Ugh.

Try this formula 

Remember the acronym CPDP, which stands for Clear, Positive, Doable, and Present tense. 

  1. Clear - Rather than saying something vague like “I want you to respect your grandparents” (which could be interpreted hundreds of ways), focus instead on specific behaviors, such as “I want you to ask permission to leave Grandma’s table when you’re finished eating.”
  2. Positive - If I ask you to get me ice cream, and say I don’t want vanilla, chances are still pretty high you’ll bring back something I’m not happy with. Take a moment to translate requests about what you don’t want into what you do want. “Don’t spend so much time on that project” could be more clear by saying, “I want you to complete these other important projects before spending time on that one.” 
  3. Doable - “Don’t take things so personally” may be reasonable, but it may not be doable. What might be doable is, “The next time you receive criticism, can you reflect back what you heard before reacting?”
  4. Present Tense - Because life is always changing, if we request someone do something in the future, they may feel it is written in stone and immutable, again leading to resentment, dis-connection, and dis-ease. Instead, we can simply ask “Can you agree now to…” Only the present moment is in our control. 

It also helps to conclude a request with a reflection, to get the other person’s buy-in: “What do you think?” or “Is That OK with you?”

Let’s try the above conversation again…

Supervisor [thinking before speaking]: I’m feeling anxious because my designer gets defensive when others comment on his work. My need for efficiency and collaboration isn’t being met. I imagine that his need for safety or support aren’t being met. Let me try this again.

Supervisor: Can we talk? Yesterday, when John gave you feedback on your designs, I sensed you got defensive and frustrated. 

Designer: Yes! He’s so opinionated and just criticizes without knowing what he’s talking about. I went to school or design and he’s never even taken a design class in his life! He just says, “I don’t like that!” 

Supervisor: It sounds like you’re having difficulty collaborating with him?

Designer: I guess, if you put it that way.

Supervisor: I have to tell you that I’m also frustrated because when you two argue, our team is affected. [pause, breathe] Can I make a suggestion? If you’re not comfortable with it, we can find another solution. 

Designer: Please!

Supervisor: The next time you have a feedback session with John, start by acknowledging that when he says “I don’t like that,” you get frustrated because your need for collaboration isn’t being met, then, suggest that you both focus your discussion on the design or business reasons behind his opinions of your designs. You can set an up-front contract that discussion won’t be based on personal preferences. Can you agree to trying that, right now? What do you think?

Designer: Sure. That’s a good idea. I’ll give it a try.   

Why it works

There are three reasons that this request will be more successful than the dialogue at the start of this post, where the supervisor simply asked, “Can you show more teamwork?” 

First, it wasn’t a demand. There was no threat of blame or punishment if the person failed to comply. Requests are received as demands when others believe they’ll be blamed or punished for not complying. When people hear demands, they see only two options: submit or rebel. 

Second, it came with the intention of meeting both the supervisor’s and the employee’s needs. 

Third, it was clear and doable.

By being clear, well intended, and free of demands, requests can invite dialogue, collaboration, trust, and openness to other strategies.


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