When people make asks of us, and we aren’t clear about the core of the ask, we make assumptions. When that happens, we leave the door open for frustration and hurt. Use this simple question to define the ask and shape your response.
A friend of mine recently confided that her tweenage daughter is struggling socially. The issue? The daughter gives a lot of emotional energy to her friends, but doesn’t feel she gets back the same in return.
This happens all day long—at home, at work, with friends, parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, and direct reports. We expect it to look like A. It looks like B. Or N. Or Y. And we’re angry. Hurt. Scared. Annoyed. Sad.
I was talking this issue of emotional expectations with my sister, Ariella. I told her someone once said to me, “I want to be closer. I want to talk more often. I want to do more things together.”
If I’m being honest, I didn’t want to be closer to this person. It’s a hard thing to say to someone, isn’t it? I like you, but not that much? Even though it’s not romantic, the words ‘I’m just not that into you’, apply here. And why the hell can’t you take the hint? I don’t text you back immediately, I don’t reach out, and I don’t pick up the phone. Can’t you read my signals?
Apparently not. Because, this person wasn’t a mind reader. In fact, no one is a mind reader.
I’m going to say it again: No one is a mind reader. (Except Edward, in Twilight, and he was also a 300-year old vampire. So, I think my point stands.)
Sometimes, people just miss the signals. Or, they misinterpret them because they want to. They don’t want to face the terrible feelings of rejection. They want to believe their boss believes they’re super talented and destined for rock star leadership. People may think: Oh, that friend is just busy. When she’s done getting married, having a baby, adjusting to this new job, having another baby and so on, she’ll focus me on that way I want.
People make time for the people they want to make time for. It’s very simple.
So, what would you do, when this person, who I didn’t really want to make space for, said, “Let’s be closer?”
Simple response: “What will that that look like to you?”
As my sister said, “For some people being closer is talking once a week. For some it’s talking once a month. For others it’s texting every hour. To me it looks like an apple, and to you it looks like an elephant.”
When my direct report says, “I want more responsibility,” the answer is: What will that look like to you? When my husband says, “I want to spend more time together (hint, husband, you should say that), my response: What would spending more time together look like to you? When my children say, “I want you to buy me this,” my response: “What will it look like if you have that thing?”
When we probe for the answers, we hear something solid behind the amorphous request. Then we can start to do the hard work of moving forward. Are as we as far apart as comparing an elephant and an apple? Or, does one person think it’s a banana and the other thinks it’s an apple, so at least they’re both thinking about fruit? In other words, does my direct report want more responsibility because she wants to push herself and engage with more clients to learn more about our business, or is she really asking, “When is my promotion coming?”
If she is asking about her future, I can respond and say, “I think you need to work on X, Y and Z before we consider a promotion. It’s a great sign you’re asking for more responsibility. I need a plan from you on how you’re going to accomplish X, Y and Z; why don’t you think about it and get back to me in a week?” By adding color and definition, we can come to a decision about how to get at the center of the ask.
When my husband (still waiting) says he wants to spend more time together, does he mean a date once a week? A five-minute chat before bed? A vacation in Italy (yes, please!). When we don’t ask when someone says, “I want this thing,” we start making assumptions about what the ‘thing’ is. When we push to define, everyone gets clarity.
The next time someone makes a shapeless ask, go deeper and respond: “What will that that look like to you?” With definition comes the ability to come to a compromise, reject the ask, or decide on a way forward. In the case of my friend, it was: “Sorry, I just can’t talk every week. I wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of capacity.” While it may hurt, it frees them to stop expecting something that isn’t there. And you deserve to give them that truth, no matter how painful it is to say it and receive it.
“What will that look like to you?” Seven words that will transform your relationships—and you. Because the next time you make an ask, you’ll make a clear one, leaving no room for assumptions about what it is you truly want.