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.

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11 Responses to Leadership Tools: The Art of a Simple, Direct Request

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Leadership Tools: The Art of a Simple, Direct Request | Christopher Avery's blog on Leadership and Responsibility -- Topsy.com

  2. Great advice.
    I would add to that: always start with “will you” instead of “can you”.
    We are asking if peopel want to help us. Not if they technically can help us.
    The answer to “can you”, is for most people yes I can. That does not mean they want to do that. By asking can, people feel tricked in saying yes. And those they will not go all the way to help you. With will you you will get a much more honest yes or no response.

    • Great catch Yves. Yes, “Can you?” implies ability. Only “Will you?” requests a response about intention and commitment. This is an important distinction because clarity is important. So may relationships break down around lack of clarity in requests and commitments.

  3. Excellent post, Christopher! Imagine how productive we’d all be if people stated their intentions and on the other side, didn’t waste other peoples’ time afraid to simply say no. Or even further, if they were honest about how they felt and two parties were able to come to a resolution that could be of benefit to all involved. Its not always a game. Thank you for sharing this insight on the art of a simple direct request! I agree!

  4. Thanks Maria, I appreciate you adding your voice to this. I especially like your points about simply saying no and that it’s not always a game. I remember a relationship philosopher who once said that it must not be a relationship if you’re not allowed to say no.

  5. Steve G says:

    Really Good Post Christopher.

    The way you broke it down was perfect…being clear and direct shows that you know what you want! (SIMPLE) And it avoids the confusion and frustration on the part of the person who is taking your direction!

    One thing I would add to any request is a TIMELINE and The PRIORITY LEVEL.

    I am a big fan of Clear and Concise instructions (or requests) – Let them know when you expect your request to be completed and if it is a top priority or not.

    I also ask people for a list of tasks/responsibilities that they enjoy doing and are good at and a list of their least favorites and where they are weak. At first, I am met with a look like I have a hidden agenda, but after I tell them the why, the have a better understanding. (It allows me to see what you are good and enjoy at so I distribute the workload accordingly – of course, there will be times when you need to “suck it up” and do the things that you don’t enjoy. )

    Thanks for the post and direction!


    • Hi Steve, you add excellent points both about considering priority and timeline, and especially about discovering others preferences. Thank you. Your second point — about discovering others preferences — is one of the 5 steps in my Team Orientation Process framework for building teams. I write about this in my book and teach it in Creating Results Based Teams Anytime Anywhere with Anyone

      About priority and timeline, you got me thinking about two colleagues with whom I work. I realized along with simple and direct, priority and timeline, I add “why” (see this blog post by Jean Tabaka on the importance of starting with why) and acceptance criteria for important context when it is not already understood. As an example, something these colleagues and I share in our personalities is perfectionism. So we get to remind each other about doing something “good enough for now.”

      Here’s a small example. One of these colleagues recently sent me an email with a half-dozen recommendations for changes to work in process. They are all great ideas but none are level 1, 2 or 3 in severity. I thanked her for the list, added it to the backlog, and offered my thinking about priority and where we should be focused.

      Without the training I’ve had in the last 7 years on the marvelous tools of lean, agile, scrum and such, I would not be as organized and clear about work and work relationships as I am. And I have so much room for more improvement.

  6. Aruna says:

    Fantastic thoughts!. Being straightforward and direct no matter what the consequence requires courage. But still I have a question here.

    If people respond “no” to me I usually feel I don’t have enough managerial skills. Why shouldn’t we motivate employees to do what we want? Isn’t it a managerial skill to be able to motivate, make people aligned with our goals and get things done.

    “The intersection of Technology and Leadership”

  7. Thanks for your comment and question Aruna. I learned this from a wise relationship philosopher once. If you can’t say “no” to a request, then it is not a true relationship. All relationships have give and take, freedoms and loyalties — even the boss-to-subordinate relationship. If the subordinate can’t say “no” then “yes” doesn’t really mean anything.

  8. @Aruna I agree with Christopher.
    I once had a boss who did not accept a no. Everytime he forced me in my mind I made the decision do I want to keep working for this person or not.
    That was the choice I had. (That was also my way of taking responsibility in that situation.)
    in my opinion a manager that “motivates” people to do something they don’t want to do is a bad manager.
    A good book about this is Drive from Daniel Pink.
    I wrote about how I killed internal motivation when my oldest son learned to swim:

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