When engaged in a challenging, crucial conversation, use this simple question to get at a person’s specific ask.
When I was in high school, I was…well, let’s just say I could be…disruptive. In fact, my yearbook quote was, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Thomas Jefferson said that. And it makes sense why he would.
I had a teacher, who we shall call RDW, who was very unhappy with my behavior. One day, when my mom came to pick me up, he strode out to her car. He stood outside of the driver’s side and spoke to my mother through the window. My classroom looked onto the parking lot so I could witness this whole exchange. I can still see his arrogant stance in my head, legs spread wide, hands in his suit pockets, probably mansplaining.
Can you imagine my mounting dread? And, even worse, my classmates were watching. Some of them were giving me sympathetic glances. Some were giggling. Some were probably thinking about what they were going to eat for dinner.
As soon as the bell rang, I ran out to my mom’s car. I expected her to GIVE IT TO ME. But she didn’t say anything. I tentatively asked, “What did RDW want?”
She responded, “He says you don’t behave in class.” (What does Billy Eilish say? “Duh.”)
Now, previously in the saga of my high school career, my parents voiced extreme displeasure at my “rebellion”. My mom once came home from parent teacher conferences crying. (Seriously, this is true.) But she didn’t seem the least bit bothered by this teacher’s complaint that day.
I began to probe, but my mom, whose name is Julia, said “He wanted to complain. He didn’t know what he wanted. So, I asked him the same thing I ask my unhappy clients, “What would you like me to do?”
What would you like me to do? Seven perfect words when stuck inside of a difficult exchange. Seven perfect words that put the responsibility back on the requester. Seven perfect words that communicate you’re willing to get in the game, if the other person simply says what they want. Which most people have little practice articulating.
When you ask people what they want you to do, you’re asking them to put into words a specific ask. If people want to complain or vent, there’s a time and place for that. But at some point, the venting gets tiring. One way to shut down the conversation is by simply asking “What would you like me to do?”
I use this technique on my children to prod them to make a specific ask. They’ve gotten so used to this, that now when I voice displeasure at their actions, they will turn to me and say, “What would you like me to do, Mommy?” Being on the other side of this question, I see how it stops you in your tracks and forces you to think about what you want—specifically.
When managing a crucial conversation with a client or direct report, I say, “Tell me what you’d like me to do.” I find by taking out the question, it softens the ask. It also gives me a chance to catch my own breath, slow down and try and understand the situation. It also gives the other person the feeling of control, which is important when communicating a desire to solve a problem.
The next time, you’re in a conversation that seems to be descending into a complaint fest, and you want to shut it down, ask the person “What would you like me to do?”
You can think of Julia and smile.