Whether it’s a colleague, friend, or family member, asking someone to do something can be intimidating. So, when the person responds to your request with something noncommittal like “I’ll look into it,” we may leave it there, without pressing them for a timeline.
Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that approach won’t produce the results we need.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Rae Ringel, an executive coach and faculty member at the Georgetown University Institute for Transformational Leadership, discusses what she refers to as “the art of the request,” including how to respond when someone keeps putting yours off. Here’s what to know.
When making a request of someone, Ringel says that ideally, they’ll respond in one of four ways:
- Making a counteroffer (“I can’t get it to you today, but I can get it to you by 6 p.m. tomorrow”)
- A committed delay (“I’ll get back to you with an answer by noon on Tuesday”)
However, if you’re getting a response that doesn’t fit into one of those four categories, you’re likely receiving what Ringel calls a “non-response”—which, she says, ups the chances of your request getting ignored, or put off indefinitely.
According to Ringel, some common non-responses include:
- I’ll look into it.
- That should work.
- I’ll circle back to you.
- Let me check with X.
- Sounds good.
- I’ll do my best.
- I’ll put someone on that.
- I’ll see what I can do.
- Great idea.
Let’s say you asked a coworker for a list of your company’s competitors in your area. They responded saying they’d “look into it,” but two weeks later, they haven’t provided you with the list, or even an update.
At this point, Ringel says that the ball is in your court, and getting results will require a firm commitment from them. In order for that to happen, you’ll need to make a “clearly articulated request”—something she says “[doesn’t] come naturally to most of us.”
According to Ringel, an effective request communicates five things:
- What, exactly, you want
- Who you want it from
- When you need it by
- What needs to happen in order for the request to be completed to your satisfaction
- The context of the request and why it matters
It’s important to be as detailed as possible when articulating the various components of your request, Ringel explains.
For example, instead of telling someone you need something “ASAP,” or by the “end of the week” or “close of business,” provide them with a specific date and time (e.g. Friday, October 13 by 5 p.m. EST). This will avoid confusion over when, exactly, the workday or week officially ends, and clarify your expectations.
After providing these details, don’t accept a non-response in return. Instead, ask them to either accept, decline, or make a counteroffer, or a committed delay. Lastly, Ringel recommends letting the person know when they can expect you to follow up with them to get an update.