Leadership Tools: The Art of a Simple, Direct Request

Do you make simple, direct requests of other people, or do you concoct complex, indirect expectations?

Many years ago, long before I knew the value of a simple, direct request, a mentor told me that every time I came to him for something, he felt like he was negotiating with a cutting horse.

A cutting horse is trained to separate — or cut — a cow from the heard in order to be dealt with by the ranch hands as an individual instead of as part of the heard. A cutting horse is highly prized and comes in useful when branding, medicating, or otherwise treating individual cows in the heard.

I was pretty sure being called a cutting horse was not a compliment.

What Larry was telling me that day was that he was feeling like I was trying to control or manipulate him into a direction that would serve me. He knew there was something I wanted from him, and he felt like I was trying to get it in a convoluted and indirect way — one he didn’t appreciate very much. His next words landed with clear impact: “Why don’t you just ask me for what you want?”

His simple, direct request made me realize I really was trying to cut him away from his freedom to choose. After I worked through why I felt I needed to do that to a colleague, I realized that supporting another person’s freedom — to say yes, no, or anything else — is vital.

Simple, direct requests are just that: simple, direct, and requests


  • Please pass the salt.
  • Would you get this project done for me before Friday?
  • Will you tell me if your satisfaction with my service during the last month rates a 10 out of 10?

When you make simple, direct requests of others, you are letting them know that:

  1. you know what you want
  2. you know how they can support you
  3. you are aware that you are asking for something
  4. they have a choice of responses to your request
  5. you take responsibility for knowing what you want, communicating it clearly, and that you might not get it

What happens when you don’t make simple, direct requests?

These are the reactions that will result from not being direct: confusion, irritation, guessing, or awareness of your tactic.

Larry was clearly aware of my tactic. And him pointing out my approach reminded me of being irritated with someone for the same reason: For years someone with whom I spent a lot of time coordinating activities would, instead of asking directly for what she wants, grant me permission to do the tasks she wanted done.

Her command would be, “Christopher, you can go to the store for supplies.” instead of “Would you go to the store for supplies?” I would respond: “Do you want me to go to the store?” To which she would either reply, “That’s what I said.” or “Never mind, I’ll do it myself!”

What gets in the way of making simple, direct request?

  • you are afraid to ask for what you want
  • you don’t know what the other person wants
  • you are afraid people will say no
  • you think that asking directly is too simple — not conniving enough

The next time you find yourself manipulating requests in your head to your liking to direct the outcome, stop yourself and try one or more of the following:

  1. ask yourself: why am I not willing to just ask for what I want?
  2. pre-accept all of the possible outcomes (yes, no, why are you asking me? etc.) so it stings less if you don’t get what you want
  3. or just make a simple, direct request

Most likely, you will be rewarded for making a direct request. If you don’t like the outcome, feel stuck or not very powerful, try to expand your options and alternatives instead of dressing up your request with fancy language. In choice, there is power, freedom, and dignity.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Master leadership or build a responsible team (or family) with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.

Posted in Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork on 01/26/2011 10:00 am
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