Unclear requests wreak havoc in organizations, families, friendships, and civic life.
This is particularly true when the one receiving the request blindly says “yes.”
What is an unclear request? It’s when you ask me to do something but are vague about what you want.
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Scenario A: Omission of the “What”
Imagine that you are the design manager for a team creating a new product for the home refrigerator. When attached to the fridge, it senses when the door isn’t closed all the way and emits a sound. When Henry Homeowner hears this sound, he knows to go back and find out what’s blocking the door.
I’m your lead designer, and we have a preliminary conversation about the product and what it will do. You close by saying to me, “Give me something by Thursday at 5pm.”
I think to myself, Hmm, I don’t really know what “something” means, but that’s what they pay me to do, and I don’t want to look stupid by asking a question. So I say, “You got it, boss.”
I work hard on this for three days, and on Thursday afternoon give you what you asked for. Ten minutes later, the phone rings. “That is not what I asked for” you say with audible frustration. I feel dejected and angry. What a waste of time!
Scenario B: Omission of the “When”
Same product, people, and situation. But this time, you say, “Give me a 3D prototype with basic specs next week.” This is a different type of unclear request.
When I hear this, I understand what will satisfy you and know that it’s urgent. So I shift my schedule around to allow me to get you the prototype by next Friday at noon, five hours before your deadline.
On Wednesday morning, you knock on my door. “Where’s the prototype?” you ask.
My throat tightens, and pressure mounts in my forehead. In a low apologetic voice, I reply, “I’m working on it.”
The frown on your face tells me that this isn’t the answer you were looking for. “I told you I needed it this week. We’re already halfway through the week.”
Scenario C: Omission of the “What” and the “When”
Same product, people, and situation. This time, you say, “Give me something ASAP.” This is still another type of unclear request.
Although I don’t know what will satisfy you or when you want it, I agree to the request.
What happens next: as the saying goes, I get my just dessert.
Who messed up?
When it’s time for the team’s annual Broken Trust Awards, which one of us gets to walk away with a medal?
The answer, of course, is both. You receive the Fuzzy Duddy Award for making the unclear request. I get the Dummy Award for accepting it.
What can I do differently?
The obvious answer to unclear requests is to resent you for being so unclear. You’re the manager. You’re supposed to know what you’re talking about. Stop jerking me around!
Or, I can own up to my part of the situation. The next time you make an unclear request, I choose to do one of the following:
- Ask for clarification. “I get what you’re looking for and want to make sure I understand when exactly you want it. You said ‘next week.’ When during the week did you have in mind?”
- Propose something more specific. “OK, so you want something by Thursday at 5pm. I want to make sure that we are on the same page in terms of what you want. If I gave you a table of features and benefits, will this work for you, or did you have something else in mind?”
- Promise to propose something more specific. “I’ve got the timeframe and understand that it may not be clear exactly what you’re looking for. What I’d like to do is take two hours and come back to you with a proposal for what I’ll have for you by Thursday at 5pm. Will this work for you?”