Requests & Favors: Getting to the Point

May 13, 2010

Learn with Lloyd! Small talk plays an important role in American business culture.  However, too much of a good thing can be bad!  I got a call recently from an acquaintance who wanted to let me know that he was looking for work and wanted to know if I had any suggestions.  However, instead of getting to the point, he engaged in 10 minutes of small talk.  This would have been OK if he were a close friend, but we aren’t close, so I didn’t understand why he was asking about things like my family’s health!   

Here’s what he said: “Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  How’s your wife doing?  Is she still….?  Oh wow, that’s…!  And your parents — how are they doing?…  As for me, I’ve been….    And then X happened, and….   So I’m looking for a job and….  Can you give me some ideas on…?”

 I was getting impatient with the conversation, and when I finally understood that he was simply networking for useful ideas, I was eager to offer a few quick thoughts and bring the call to an end! 

Different cultures have different assumptions about making a request: the person who called me is from a culture in which 10 minutes of small talk is probably considered good manners.  If you’re from outside the USA, be aware that in requesting information, help, or favors, you’ll probably receive a warmer response from Americans if you make your request early, quickly, and directly

The conversation described above could have been more effective — and my response would have been more thoughtful and substantive — if the caller had been aware of American cultural expectations.  To start, he should have kept small talk to a minimum.  When speaking to acquaintances, associates, and colleagues — in person or on the phone — consider whether two or more of the following are true:

  1. You have a practical purpose or concrete goal for the conversation
  2. Your conversation partner is not a close friend
  3. You haven’t spoken to this person in a long time

 

If two or more of these are true, then limit your small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner initiates more small talk by asking questions).  In the case of my acquaintance, he could have made 2-3 brief small talk comments/questions — “Happy New Year!  How are you doing?  How’s your wife?” — and then moved on to the purpose of his call:

Purpose statement, part 1 — CONTEXT: “Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and….”

Purpose statement, part 2 — REQUEST: “…I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about….”

When making requests or asking for favors from people whose relationship to you is cool or distant, or who may be busy or unreceptive to requests for help, get to the point early, clearly, and concisely, but also politely.  The request above features a few indirect words to soften its directness:

  • I was wondering: indirect introductory phrase
  • if I could ask you: indirect conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “asking,” not the listener “giving”
  • any: meaning “any possible” — indicates the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer
  • might: conditional, with an implied “if” — “if you happen to have ideas, or if you can think of anything spontaneously, and if you would be willing to share your thoughts with me”

 

As this imaginary conversation continues, let’s assume YOU are the requester.  If you think the person you’ve contacted may be busy or preoccupied, or if you need the person’s full attention for more than 3 minutes, you should confirm whether this particular time is convenient for such a conversation.

Ask: “Is this a good time to talk?” 

Don’t say: “You sound/seem/look busy.  Are you busy?”  This is confusing because most people are likely to feel somewhat “busy” — and they’re not sure what “Are you busy?” really means.

* * *

If the other person indicates the time is NOT ideal or convenient, ask when a good time to talk would be.  Try to get the other person to propose a time or range of times that would suit his/her schedule.

Ask: “Would there be a better time when I could call you back?”

or: “Is there a particular time that might be more convenient for you?”

Don’t ask: “Can I call you back another time?” 

or: “Can we talk another time?”  This is slightly unpleasant because your partner can imagine the conversation resuming at some future inconvenient time.  It fails to express a desire to find a specific alternate time that would suit that person, and it invites a vague reply of “Yes” or “Sure,” which is not helpful to either of you.

* * *

If the person seems particularly busy, indicate the conversation will be short.

Say: “I just wanted to ask you a couple of specific questions.” 

or: “I just wanted to talk to you for 3 or 4 minutes.”

Don’t say: “I have so many questions I want to ask you!”   Your listener is likely to think, “Oh no!”

* * *

Email can be an excellent way to continue such a conversation.  Unlike a phone call or face-to-face conversation, email gives the recipient time to consider your message and compose a response.  In the case of my acquaintance, an email would have been more effective for both of us than a phone call.  However, the context for every conversation is unique, so use your judgment in choosing (or combining) phone, face-to-face, or email communication. 

For example, during a phone conversation you might realize that email would be efficient for sharing some particular information.  If you propose to send your partner an unsolicited (uninvited) email, refer to it in light, reader-friendly terms such as “short” or “a couple of questions.”

Ask: “Could I email you a short description of what I have in mind?”

or: “Could I email you a couple of  questions I wanted to ask you?”

Don’t say: “Let me email you more information.”  This is somewhat unwelcome because it sounds like an unwanted burden — after all, this person did not ask to be contacted and is unlikely to be eager to receive a load of unsolicited “information.”

* * *

If your conversation ends with an understanding that your partner will contact you if he/she has something of interest for you, be sure to confirm your latest phone number and email address.  

Ask: “Could I give you my email address?  It’s…, and my telephone number is…..”

or: “Let me make sure you have my latest email address.  It’s…, and my phone number is….”

Don’t ask: “Do you have my email address?”  This is slightly uncomfortable because people may not be sure they have it, or they may wonder whether you’re still using the address they may have in their contact list, and they may not be able to check their records right now.  Also, this question invites a vague reply of “I’m sure I do” or “I think so” with no real confirmation, which could result in no email following this conversation!

Even better, offer to send them a follow-up email so they have your address readily available, even if the current conversation doesn’t require a follow-up.  Then they can relax, knowing your contact information will be forthcoming, and your email message may help stimulate a thoughtful, substantive reply, which is the result you’re looking for!

Say: “I can send you a quick email so you have my latest address and telephone number.”

Don’t say: “I’ll send you a follow-up email so you can add me to your contacts.”  This is presumptuous; the term “follow-up” is fine in the workplace, but in a case requiring no follow-up, or when you and the other person are not colleagues, “follow-up” sounds too official.  Also, “so you can…” presumes that people will react in specific, prescribed ways.  Let them decide what to do with your incoming email — don’t dictate what they should do, and don’t assume they’ll do what exactly what you want or need them to do.

* * * * *

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