Asking from a distance

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Asking for what you want from your team members, colleagues or in-house resources isn't easy. None of us want to seem demanding, needy or bossy - even if we are the boss. This can be even trickier when you aren't looking someone in the eye as you ask that huge favor or push for what you need. There's a way to increase the odds of getting what you want while maintaining great virtual relationships.

John Baker is a veteran Fortune 25 management and leadership consultant and author of the upcoming book: The Asking Formula – Ask For What You Want And Get It. He spent several years studying the fears and trepidation people demonstrate in "asking" situations that cut across the whole spectrum of human interactions.

His conclusion? People don't know the best way to get what they want. He then documented the simplest tactics and strategies that he observed in the people who were getting exactly what they were after.

I asked John what role does distance and working virtually plays in the way we make requests of people.

His reply? There are two vital impacts that distance has on the way we communicate and make requests of team members.

First, the heightened need for precision: Like the childhood game of "Telephone" where a message gets garbled and confused as it passes from one player to another, being separated from our audience can make even the simplest message incomprehensible. The question no longer is did our audience hear us but what did they hear? As our message cuts across the globe, language barriers and cultural differences add to the level of accumulated errors often amusingly.

During a cross-continental phone conversation on October 31, one of my US-based staff members asked a contemporary based in India whether she was "dressed up today?" The question was innocuous enough as it referred to the American tradition of Halloween costuming, but was misinterpreted by the receiver who took offense to the implication that she was somehow attired inappropriately.

Precision requires exactness. Get to the point and get to it quickly. If you can use 20 words don't use 40; if you can use 10 don't use 20. Choose to use plain language that limits the risk confusion. Write down what you want to say and practice saying it: this is especially important when your request will likely lead to a difficult conversation.

Speak slowly and confidently: often the technology designed to bridge distance adds distortion to your delivery so careful enunciation is a must. Plus your accent needs to be processed through your audience's auditory filters: give them time to make the adjustment.

Then, the need for preparation, documentation and follow-up: Communicating across distances means preparing in ways in which we have grown unaccustomed. It's easy to run down the hallway and remind a co-worker of a key request or upcoming deadline. In fact, proximity contributes to a certain level of both laziness and casualness when it comes to our communication habits.

This lackadaisical manner can have a corroding effect when the co-worker is 10,000 miles away - often operating in a completely opposite part of the day. Best practice is to use what I call an "Asking Agenda" a straightforward document that has three parts:

1. The objective of the meeting clearly stated at the top of the page. And, when I say clearly stated, I mean in 15 words or less. If you can't tell me what the purpose of the meeting is within fifteen words you're already behind the eight ball.

2. Three to five action items that need to be accomplished in order to achieve the stated objective. If there are more than five action items, the potential for mis-communication and "dropped balls" goes up exponentially. If you have a larger agenda, break the conversation down into smaller parts to ensure commitment and buy-in. You are more apt to get what you want with three separate, simple, clear requests than one multi-faceted request with various outcomes all jumbled together.

3. The five bullet points of who, what, when, where and how. Self explanatory, this section is to document the ownership and deadlines of the expected actions and outcomes.

The "Asking Agenda" should be developed prior to the interaction and shared with everyone who is part of the conversation. It forms the agenda, documents outcomes, provides a paper trail and ensures any areas of misunderstanding are confronted and eliminated.

We'll look at more on this topic in future posts. Meanwhile, what problems have you encountered making requests across the ether? What tools and tactics work best for you and your team? Let's hear what you think!

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