How to Ask for What You Want

My college English composition teacher, Dr. Denny, was one of my favorite teachers of all time.  He was in his late 30’s, wore bow-ties and acetic sports coats, and said exactly what he thought.  Our class was 7:30am Monday mornings.  Instead of dreading the early morning hike across campus, I looked forward to it.  As a strong writer, I could have believed that I would breeze through his class just as I did virtually all my high school English classes.  Instead, I chose to let myself be challenged by him.  He made a profound difference in my life and my ability to communicate with intention.

One of the most impactful tools he taught us was how to write a good argument.  The recipe went something like this – claim, evidence, resolution:

  • The claim was essentially our point of view – more than just a mere fact – it was an insight into what we thought a set of facts or data points meant
  • The evidence was the fact, data, or quote that illustrated the claim – it logically conveyed that the claim was indeed true – the proof
  • The resolution tied it all together in a nice package – telling the audience that I told you so – reiterating the claim had been proven

I remember learning so much that quarter about how to write persuasively.  And, an even bigger life lesson – have a clear purpose every time you communicate.  As humans, we do things for a reason.  We have a purpose, and being clear about that purpose when we communicate separates us from others.  The application of Dr. Denny’s communication framework – claim, evidence, resolution – transcends far beyond a college essay – I have used this structure throughout my career.

Communicate with Intention

With the leaders and women that I coach, communication is singlehandedly their biggest challenge.  I hear lots of stories – my boss does not have my best interests in mind, or I have no idea how to start the discussion about the role or project I want.  These fears prevent us from communicating intentionally.  Yet, by applying a few lessons from Dr. Denny and others, we increase our comfort with asking for what we want, and sharpen the skill with successes over time.

In my research for Pivot Point, I interviewed dozens of women leaders around the country in various roles, industries, and experience levels.  One of the key themes that emerged was a fear to ask for what we want.  Women shared experiences where they did not ask for the promotion or raise because they were afraid of upsetting others or appearing selfish.  As Adam Grant outlines in Give & Take, women in particular struggle to ask for what they want.  However, his research demonstrates that when women negotiate on behalf of someone else, we are far more successful than our male counterparts.  In contrast, when we negotiate on our own behalves, far worse outcomes.  Now, when I coach women, and I myself negotiate, I channel those I care about that are also impacted by the outcome – my daughter, my husband, my client – and I have seen significant differences in my ability to ask as a result.

One of my partners, LEVO, recently had an event with guest speaker, Ellen Dunnigan.  Hearing Ellen speak, I was reminded of the importance of intention.  As the owner of Accent on Business, Ellen’s team of advisors work with professional on executive presence and professional communication.  In her talk with us, she shared how to package information in a way that influenced our audience.  Rather than sharing our opinions or ideas, Ellen argued that we should implore more facts and evidence to support our point of view instead.  Some of the messages she shared were:

  • “Based on my experience…”
  • “When I was in a situation similar, I…”
  • “This fact or data indicates…”

She recommended that if you only have an opinion, and it is not based on facts or experiences, remain quiet.  Let others with the experience speak up.  Model what good looks like for the team.  And if a team member makes a random suggestion or opinion, follow up with “based on what?” to guide more intentional thinking and dialogue.  Meetings are much more efficient if people operate based on experience rather than mere opinion.

Often our intentions are our goals – personal, professional, or collective for a team.  It is critical that we communicate – whether that is in an email, text, phone call, meeting, or social media – that we have a clear intention.  In today’s world of micro attention spans, we must articulate clearly what our intent is.  When I open a meeting with a customer or team member, or write a new post, I state my objective right away.  Then, I ask the recipient “what do you think?”  Which brings us to…

The Power of the Playback

I am big believer in asking lots of open-ended questions.  After we have stated our intention, it is important to listen to our audience.  In group coaching communities, I ask the powerful “what” and “how” questions, capture the key insights, and canvas the group for more.  Once I feel the group quiet, I do what I call a playback highlighting the strongest comments from the discussion.  I then ask, “What else?”  Paired with a playback, I always get an even more robust response from this question.  People cannot help but say something.  They have just heard a few nuggets, and are anxious to contribute more; those are usually the most insightful comments made.  The playback facilitates a deeper level of thinking.  It generates even more ideas.  Some of my favorite ways to facilitate playbacks are stating:

  • “If I heard you correctly…”
  • “Tell me more…”
  • “Based on your comment, this seems really important to you…”

People love to be heard.  Simply affirming that you have heard them, pared with the actual words they said, with a powerful follow-up question, helps you gain buy-in far more quickly than merely talking at someone.

A Case Study

Meet Catherine.  A few years ago, Catherine was in the throes of a career transition, and was looking to move from the non-profit world to something different.  She just did not know what that something different was yet.  However, she had an amazing network of people that she knew could help her get there.  After sharing her intention to make a leap with her supporters individually, she began to write a weekly job newsletter to her collective group of supporters.  She shared her progress on her goals, the challenges she was facing, with one or two specific asks that could help her the next week.  Her communication was proactive and intentional.  Catherine shared this process with me, and trust you will learn from it whether you are in a career transition or just looking to better communicate with your team.

  • Blind copy everyone on your support team, along with stakeholders, sponsors, or co-workers or management that can help you
  • Write a catchy subject line
  • Share a brief introduction reiterating your key goals
  • Summarize key accomplishments, progress on goals, and challenges in bullet point form. People really like simple, scanable content.  Keep it brief with no more than three to five bullet points.  To test this, send it to a friend and ask if she or he is able to read it in less than a minute on a mobile device.  It should be that simple.
  • Have a hook or call to action at the conclusion. Ask for it.  If there is a particular challenge or action item that we are struggling with, here is the chance to ask for help.  Be clear and concise with the ask. Bold it so if they read nothing else, they see the ask.
  • Finally, thank them for their time and support. Be gracious and show genuine appreciation.

As a result, Catherine landed her dream job as a consultant at PurpleInk and now supports companies recruiting and retaining their top talent.  I am honored to partner with her and her team in boosting employee engagement and supporting JoyPowered cultures.

Next time you are wrestling with asking for what you want, ask yourself these questions to quite the fear, and drive you to communicate intentionally.

  • If you do not ask, who will? Chances are you are the best one to ask.
  • What’s holding you back? If it is just a fear of no, remind yourself of the chance of yes.
  • What’s the worst that could happen? Often, worst case scenario is not as bad as we make it to be in our mind.

Good leaders ask for what they want.  How will you ask for it?

#askforwhatyouwant #beintentional #communication