I was reading an online article this week about scientists studying how chimpanzees communicate. For this particular study, researchers spent 750 hours observing chimps and analyzing their vocalizations.

What they found is that chimps indeed do “talk” to one another using a “variety of vocalizations, but also facial expressions and gestures.” Unsurprisingly, most of their discussions revolve around food and, in particular, favorite fruits and where they can be found.

I guess our simian friends talk about a lot of the same stuff we do! Can “Yelp for Chimpanzees” be far behind?

After reading the article, I got to thinking that for beings with such advanced language skills, we humans sure seem to have a lot of communications issues. Chief among them is the tendency of people NOT to say what they want or need and when they need it, especially in work settings.

I explored this topic in a blog nearly two years ago. Here’s that blog again. Enjoy!


If You Need Something, Just Ask

(Originally posted on April 10, 2013)

I am often surprised when I hear people grumbling how they didn’t get something they wanted, only to find out from them later that they never really asked for it.

  • “I built this new Web site and all I really wanted was for people to contact me for a free consult.” (Well, did you actually ASK people to do that? Did you provide an easy mechanism for that to happen?)
  • “I really wanted this project done by Monday. But now I’m told by my team that I won’t get it until Wednesday morning at the earliest.”(When you requested the work to be done, did you state a deadline or any kind of timeframe requirement?)
  • “My boss asked me to complete this assignment. I thought he needed it, like, yesterday so I spent all weekend working on it. Now he tells me he doesn’t need it until next week. Can you believe that?” (When the assignment was made, did you ask when it was needed?)
  • “I am being asked to do the impossible. I have to write this article in three days and no one has filled me in with any of the particulars about the history or the people involved.”(Cat got your tongue? If you know you don’t have the information you need, why not ask for it?)

These examples might seem extreme, but in my experience, they are quite common. For whatever reasons, people tend NOT to say what they want/need and when they need it. Will asking make them look bad or foolish? Will asking make others uncomfortable? Or are they just fearful of getting an answer they won’t like, such as “I need it before you leave for the day” or “I can’t do it”?

It’s easy to stay quiet. You don’t make waves or ruffle feathers that way, at least to begin with, but eventually, the dangers of not asking catch up to you. Plus “not asking” has a bit of a passive/aggressive feel to me:

  • When you’re asked to do/complete something that’s unrealistic and you don’t push back, are you really just looking for a reason to grumble to others about the request or person making the request?
  • When you ask someone to do something but don’t provide enough information or context or even a deadline, are you really just afraid you’ll hear something you don’t want to hear (such as “It can’t be done”) or worse yet, are you looking for a reason to criticize someone else’s performance or lack thereof?

Asking should be simple . . . and it is. I believe we all perform better and feel better when we know the rules and the expectations. To that end, ask about what you don’t know and ask for what you need. That way both “asker” and “askee” lessen any chance of harboring unrealistic expectations and making unrealistic promises.

Here are some rules of thumb:

  • If you make a request of another person to do something for you (whether it’s business-oriented or a personal request) include a timeframe and be specific. You’re not being aggressive or overbearing if you do. It just makes good sense.
  • If you are on the receiving end of a request or make a commitment to someone else not knowing when it needs to be done—in an hour, this afternoon, next week, or the proverbial “yesterday”—or not knowing all the particulars, shame on you. Don’t say you can do something, knowing that you can’t deliver.
  • If you need more time to do good work, ask for more time. If more time can’t be granted because of a hard-and-fast deadline, suggest alternatives for what can be done NOW, within the timeframe, to satisfy the core requirement, and what can be done longer-term. This way, you satisfy the client/friend/family member’s immediate need while gaining additional time to fulfill the request for the long-term . . . and neither of you gets too stressed out.

These rules of thumb can apply to your personal life as well. Maybe a child, spouse, or friend has asked for something for school, work, or the home that you simply can’t get delivered on time, you don’t have time for, or that’s out of your price range. Are there alternatives that will satisfy the immediate need (“need” in this case is not the same as “want”), while you try to fulfill the want more long-term?

For example, let’s say your 15-year-old niece really wants to go to the mall because she needs to get something for school or the big dance that’s tomorrow, after which she’d really like to get dropped off at a friend’s house or go out to grab a bite (after all, you’re already out, aren’t you?). So she asks you to drive her because Mom and Dad are busy. You, on the other hand, have already made personal commitments to others for that same time period, and frankly it’s lots of driving and lots of gas money, and your niece is not in a position where she can chip in (nor do you feel comfortable asking her).

What are you to do?

Instead of stating a flat-out “No” (which would perturb your niece and make dear-old “Unkie” persona non-grata) and instead of sucking it up with a “Yes” and a smile (which would make you break promises you made to others and stress you/them out), offer your niece an alternative. Maybe you can bring her to the mall. It’s on the way or nearby, plus that’s what she really needs, while the rest (friend’s house and/or food) are really just extras or “wants.” She’ll get something (trip to the mall), you’ll get something (you get to keep your commitments, make your niece happy, plus keep the gas needle off “E”) . . . and it all starts by asking a simple question, “I can’t do all of that, but what if we do this instead?”

What has your experience been when you’ve asked instead of assumed? Conversely, how has NOT asking affected you personally? Professionally? (See how easy it is to ask.)

Share your answers here.

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