Archive for September 2015

Dealing with vague requests: the quick-question trick

September 21, 2015

I get a lot of vague requests for help. I don’t know if this is a problem that most people have, or something specific to my situation. In my professional life I’m in the field of organisational communications and in my personal life I’ve volunteered for a lot of different organisations in a communications/publicity capacity. So I’m guessing that I get this more than average, but others get it too.

The vague request usually comes in through email or social media. Sometimes it takes the form of a big chunk of information followed by a request to “link up” or “do something with this” or “discuss this”. Sometimes it’s just a big chunk of information on its own, with no context, but I know or guess that I’m expected to do something with it.

This stuff drives me crazy, because I’m  a Guesser rather than an Asker, so I feel some obligation to take requests seriously. But I inwardly groan because I can’t easily see what they want me to do, and I resent the fact that the sender is forcing me to do the interpretative labour of working it out. (And then they presumably want me to burn through some more cognitive resource deciding whether or not I can/should/will do it, and then either saying no (which takes energy) or actually doing the thing. That’s really a lot to ask from someone when you haven’t even bothered to explain what you want.

Actually, there are lots of reasons why people send this kind of non-specific request.

  • The sender might feel embarrassed about asking for help directly. This seems especially common with women. I think the cultural training not to be “demanding” leads to asking for things in a roundabout way.
  • The sender might have no theory of mind, so they assume that if they tell people what they’re planning, we’ll all understand exactly what is required and offer relevant help.
  • The sender hasn’t actually worked out what help they need but they want either attention or the feeling that they’re doing something (or both), and they can get this from alerting strangers to their project.
  • The sender has really poor communication skills.
  • The sender is basically just spamming.

Whatever the reason, they’re a potential time-stealer and I get something like this every couple of weeks. My tendency when I get this kind of message is to be avoidant, because I resent the fuck out of having this confusing and boring thing land on me. And then I feel guilty about being avoidant. And by the time I do get back to the person (or delete the message) I’ve used up a lot of energy on badfeelz.

But I recently discovered an amazing trick for dealing with this kind of thing. Almost as soon as I see the message, I get straight back to the person with a quick question. Usually: “What exactly are you asking me to do?

I’ve said before that I get something like this every couple of weeks. I started the quick-question trick a few months ago. Want to know how many people have got back to me after I responded with my question? None. Zero.

I’m actually astonished by this. I was expecting to weed out the vaguest 20% so that I could actually deal with the other 80% on clearer terms. Instead, I have sweet, sweet silence from 100%.

I was genuinely worried that asking a follow-up question means engaging with the person and implicitly showing interest, making it harder to say “no” further down the line. But it turns out that the follow-up question is an amazing filter for this kind of crap. And as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter what the follow-up question is. I’ve also tried “What organisation do you represent?”, “Why are you sending me this?” and “Can you give me some more details?” with huge success. (Success in this instance is defined as silence.)

Of course, of course, of course many people will have read this post and thought: “What? Why don’t you just ignore these people in the first place?” Well, come back to me when you’ve had a lifetime’s cultural training to be obliging. Come back to me when a big chunk of your day’s paid work involves handling confusingly worded requests, and you don’t have the tools to distinguish a stranger-who’s-really-important from a random spammer.

The quick-question trick allows you to a) get the message out of your inbox/headspace as quickly as possible while b) looking obliging and helpful and c) not feeling guilty or worried about ignoring something that might have turned out to be important if you’d just puzzled over it a bit longer. It also allows you to d) push the work of formulating the task required back to the person who’s asking you to do the task, which seems only fair.