How many times a day do we ask for what we want or need from those who can provide what we requested? We don’t keep track of the number of requests a day we make to colleagues, either in person, by email, on the phone, during meetings and video conferences and whether in the same office, country or across the world.
We tend to describe all these acts as sending emails, making phone calls or having meetings or video conferences. But in saying that we hide the true purpose of all these ways of communicating with each other — the need to coordinate action effectively. The most important speech act for coordinating action is the request speech act. As I have written elsewhere, this is the speech act common to all languages.
Despite this, members of every culture have their own particular way of making a request, of responding to a request and of fulfilling a request. Unfortunately, few people are aware to what degree they have been conditioned by their cultures about the “right” way to make a request, to respond to a request and to fulfill a request. As a result, within an intercultural business context we often make mistakes, both in how we make requests and in how we listen to them. In what follows I’ll show you how to avoid the top two mistakes when making requests across cultures: making unclear and incomplete requests.
Making Unclear Requests
Those making a request are typically clear about their intent — although not always. Apple founder Steve Jobs was apparently fond of saying to his engineers, regarding the perfect expression of a new product idea of his, that “I’ll know it when I see it.” That’s the best example I know of an unclear request. I wonder how much time, money and resources were expended, and the amount of frustration that resulted, as Jobs’ engineers tried desperately to fulfill his deliberately unclear request.
Perhaps when you have unquestioned authority and virtually unlimited financial resources you can afford to make unclear requests and accept the resulting frustration for all concerned as part of the human cost of doing business. However, if you are working with managers or colleagues who are unclear in their requests, and lack the track record of Jobs, I’m sure that you can relate to the high price of frustration that you are paying on a daily basis.
To minimize this frustration I recommend that when you make requests, especially across cultures, you first become clear about exactly what you want. Then assume that your listener will not be as clear about what you want as you are. By starting with that basic assumption you will be more motivated to do what it takes to avoid making the second mistake: making incomplete requests.
Making Incomplete Requests
What is a complete request? When I ask my seminar participants that question it takes them some reflection to come up with an answer. Then as we spend time discussing this and deconstructing a typical request, they realize just how much there is to know about making complete requests and how important they are for improving the coordination of action across cultures.
Unfortunately, most of us assume that we know everything there is to know about making requests. And yet there are all sorts of things missing in the way most people make their requests. Fortunately, listeners often fill in the gaps but you can’t count on that, since sometimes the listener fills in the gaps correctly but often not. The proof?
Just think about how often deliveries are late, quality isn’t what we expected or we have to get things redone, sometimes several times before we are satisfied. Then we tend to blame other people or cultures, or complain about the decrease in the quality of work or the decline in the “work ethic.” When things go wrong we fail to ask ourselve — and others — a simpler, more fundamental question: Was the request complete? And the even more important question: “How can I learn to make more-complete requests to minimize these recurring problems?” The solution is in language, more than we realize.
What Aren’t You Saying?
For example, a typical request that you might hear these days would sound something like this: “Send me the report ASAP.” The acronym for “as soon as possible” has become a universal way of speaking about time. Unfortunately, it means something different for everyone and especially for those in different cultures. For the person receiving the request it can be interpreted as anything from right away until a week from now or beyond. If you expect it today and you say ASAP, can you really blame the listener for not getting it to you today? If you say by 3 PM today and it arrives tomorrow, then you have grounds for complaint. Otherwise, you can’t blame anyone but yourself for failing to be clear.
And what report does the request refer to? If there is only one report, then everyone knows which report it is? If that’s true then I agree that the request is complete enough. However, why not say “the year-end report”? That’s more complete.
Who is responsible for the report? The person who you are writing to? Or do they need to get it from someone else? “The year-end report that Clarkson is finishing for you” is even more complete.
Do you want it emailed? Mailed? Faxed? By courier? Most documents are exchanged by by email. But “Email me the year-end report that Clarkson is finishing for you by 3 PM today” is getting closer to a complete request.
How do you want it? In a PowerPoint, Word or PDF file? Again, maybe there is a standard format that everyone has agreed upon but there is no harm in adding “in a print-ready PDF format” to your request, if that’s appropriate.
Going even further, do you expect the document to be formatted in a particular way? If you do, then the more precise details you provide, the greater the chance that you will get exactly what you want.
Changing the Incomplete Request Habit
I admit that in such a simple example as given above, adding all the details can seem like overkill. But the point of the example is to demonstrate a habit that I see over and over again with my clients. They, and the people they work with, make endless incomplete requests. This results in complaining about requests not being fully met. Sometimes the problem isn’t in the people or in their actions but in language. Enhance the communication and the results will inevitably improve.
I began by saying that requests are the most important speech act for coordinating action. Therefore, it’s vital that requests be as clear and complete as possible. If you are not building the habit of consistently making clear and complete requests, then you are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
An added benefit to you is that once you become consistent at making complete requests, you will also be better at filling in the gaps of other people’s incomplete requests. Before saying yes to someone’s request you can ask a series of questions. When exactly do you want it? I’m not sure what you mean by ASAP, is tomorrow by 2 PM soon enough? I assume you want me to email it to you but I just want to verify that. I have a Word version of that report but would you prefer I convert it to a PDF? Is there any style or formatting you prefer? If so, I’d be happy to reformat it. And so on. So the added benefit is that learning to make clear and complete requests will also improve your listening.
By practicing daily on small and simple requests, both when speaking and listening, you will be building the skills you need for handling more complex requests that can have a huge impact on you and on others.
This kind of clarification process is particularly important across cultures because how we do things, what time frames we consider normal, and what our standards of quality are, vary immensely from culture to culture. Most of us assume that as long as we are speaking a common language, or working for the same company, then such clarification is unnecessary. That’s a flawed assumption.
Resistance to Making Clear Requests
While all of what I’ve said so far may sound logical to you, perhaps you find yourself resisting the need to be so detailed in how you make requests. I sometimes see that resistance in my clients. Why resist making complete requests? The top three reasons I hear are:
“It’s clear enough. I don’t have to say all that.” If that’s also your opinion, go back to mistake number one, Making Unclear Requests. Yes, it is clear to you but never assume that it is clear to the other person.
“It saves time to provide fewer details.” I can’t argue with the desire to save time but if the report doesn’t arrive, how much time do you waste by being annoyed about it and taking extra time to send another email? And how many times will you have to ask people to redo things you already requested because you failed to be clear enough about your exact expectations? And how will that make them feel about you? It actually saves plenty of time, as well as relationship wear and tear in the long run, to make complete requests. I guarantee it.
“I don’t want to insult the other person’s intelligence by providing such obvious details.” I have to admit that this one baffles me. Why is it an insult to your listener’s intelligence to make a complete request? I consider it a service to the listener to make as complete a request as possible. You are making it easier to fulfill your request, as well as easier to counter offer or decline your request. When the listener doesn’t know exactly what you want, and tries to comply anyway, how do they really know what they are promising to do?
And if you are still concerned about how a complete request will be perceived, you can always add something like, “I know that I’m including a lot of details in this request that perhaps you already know but I just want to make sure that I’m being as clear as possible.” I would rather have someone be annoyed with me for giving too many details than annoyed because I ask them to do redo something because my initial request was incomplete.
Are there other reasons you don’t want to make clear requests? If there are, I recommend that you challenge your reasoning, stop resisting and start practicing. Not only will you get better at coordinating action with others but you will build improved working relationships.
When requests are consistently clear and complete then coordination of action is smoother. Everyone’s expectations are met, which fosters an atmosphere of mutual trust. So it doesn’t just mean more effective business communication but also increased intercultural trust.