To get work done, you have to know how to communicate requests ― and at urgent moments, demands ― to the people working alongside you. But too often, we make these asks in a way that leaves their colleagues baffled and frustrated.
“I need you to … ” is a common phrase people use to delegate work and make requests, and maybe you say it yourself. But is it the best way to communicate? No. Experts say there are ways to frame an ask that will get a better response.
“I need you to … ” can shut down much-needed feedback.
Saying “I need you to” is not always ineffective, but it can be a rigid introduction to the request that leaves no room for conversation, said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
“You may not agree with the direction, you may not think it’s the most effective path, you might have input that you think is useful for me to consider as I’m making the decision. But when I say, ‘I need you to,’ it’s more likely to be interpreted as ‘there is no room for conversation here,’” she said.
As a result, people who give orders this way may be shutting down conversation when that’s not the intent.
Instead of saying “I need you to” or “I want you to,” Gallaher suggested saying “I would like you to do X, Y, Z. What do you think?” because this phrasing explicitly creates room for the person to provide their input.
Leaders in particular should keep power dynamics in mind when feedback is welcome. “You might be suppressing input just by having an opinion,” Gallaher pointed out. In these situations, it may be best to explain the need without stating your stance, with language such as, “Here’s the situation of the problem we want to solve. What do you think?”
“I need you to … ” ignores logistics and doesn’t incentivize anyone.
When something is requested of an employee, that person “has to make a decision that influences their time, their resources, and how they go about their day-to-day,” said Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company. “When someone just sends you a statement [like ‘I need you to … ’], how do you have any way to evaluate that or how that impacts your time?”
If you’re a manager, you should recognize that your requests will be prioritized. And when you don’t make it clear how they should be prioritized, it disrupts how your employees have organized their time, Brown said.
“I need” is also a statement that is focused solely on your own purposes, and can be off-putting and rude to hear. To motivate people to fulfill your request, it’s better to make it clear how doing so helps the larger bottom line ― not just you personally.
“When people lead with things that are mainly focused on themselves, it makes you feel like a personal assistant, but it also overlooks the fact that people are social and affiliative,” Brown said. “We do want to do things that we feel like will benefit a group. [Showing people how completing the request leads to a larger purpose] is a way to get people to feel more inclined to fulfill the request.”
If colleagues are not following your requests, consider whether you have a track record of not making your demands worth their time. When you make a demand that ends up being unnecessary to the business, it trains others that your requests are unnecessary, too. “When people don’t fulfill requests, sometimes it’s because they’re in cultural environments where people ask for things and then don’t use them,” Brown said.
Instead, use language that makes it clear when and why the request needs to be done, such as, “I have presentation for the client tomorrow. I need this report by 5 p.m. so I’m prepared for my presentation with the client.”
“It’s letting people know how the pieces connect together,” Brown said.