You Want What? By When?

by Grace Judson


As I wrote in a recent article on my blog, many people don’t know the most effective way to ask for what they need. That article helps readers understand what to include in their request to get the response they want, when they want it.

But what about the other side of the equation? What about those of us who are asked for things all the time (like you, as an administrative professional!) by people who aren’t always completely clear about what they want?

This lack of clarity inevitably creates situations where we think we’re doing the right thing, but we end up not meeting expectations. Either we miss a deadline, or we do more than was needed (and boy, is that a time-waster!), or we don’t do enough, and so on. Whatever the misunderstanding was that led to our missing the mark, the end result is that it looks like we screwed up. Not where you want to be.

So here’s how to help someone ask in a way that ensures you can make them happy.

  1. Never assume!

It’s easy to believe you know what someone means when they ask you to do something. But what they have in mind when they say, “I need you to set up a meeting with the project team” may not be what you think. Do they want every single member, or just the project leads? Is it a half-hour quick status review, or a 90-minute planning session? Is it urgent—should it be scheduled for first thing tomorrow morning, with everyone required to drop everything and attend—or can it be fitted into people’s schedules as time allows?

You may be so familiar with your boss and your organization that you automatically know exactly what’s intended. But then again, you may not be. Validating the details can prevent a lot of heartache.

  1. By when?

I touched on this above, and it’s important enough to call out on its own: What’s the urgency on this task? Is it a drop-everything, do-it-now priority, or… well, what?

We all need to develop our understanding of priorities so we’re not constantly asking our managers to structure our time for us. We also need their input when something comes up without a clear deadline or schedule. Simply asking, “When do you need this?” solves the problem.

  1. What comes first?

You have your regular ongoing work that happens daily, weekly, monthly, and so on. You have special projects that are one-off, with clear start and end points. And then you have this new thing that you’ve been asked to do. If you have room in your schedule, great; you’re good to go.

On the other hand, if completing this task will require delaying something else, you may need to ask for input if the delay impacts other people. Allowing those other people to be surprised by the delay is never a good idea—even if the surprised person is the one who asked you to take on the new thing. “What comes first—this new task, or this other thing that will be delayed if I do this first?”

In other words …

Make sure you know exactly what you’re being asked to do, when you’re expected to deliver it, and what can be delayed if necessary. With just a few clarifying questions, you’ll be set up to meet—and even exceed—expectations, and you’ll look like a star.

Without them, you run the risk of being perceived as someone who can’t follow directions. It won’t matter that those directions weren’t clear in the first place.

Grace Judson is an expert on communication, conflict transformation, and negotiation. She works with individuals, teams, and leaders to help them have the clean, clear, honest conversations that improve relationships and build careers. She can be reached on her website,, and in her private Facebook group, the Connection Incubator, where she’s happy to answer questions and help solve communication challenges.

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