This should only take a minute for you to do ….

"I'll only hang here a minute while I wait for that carrot!" The counters are off-limits to Oliver, but it's hard to resist the cuteness factor of his attempt at tactfully asking for something he wants (carrots, he loves the smell of carrots!) that he can see I'm preparing. No matter how tactful the attempts of another person to get your attention, or make requests, you have every right to bring in your perspective. (Oliver did get his paws off the counter after I took his picture.)
“I’ll only hang here a minute while I wait for that carrot!” The counters are off-limits to Oliver and even though he’s very aware of the rules, he’s playing coy as he quietly positions himself to ‘politely’ ask for his beloved carrots (I’m preparing them for dinner and he wants one). No matter how cute, or tactful, or how good intentions are when someone asks you for something, you should be sure to respond with your needs in return. It’s definitely hard to resist Oliver’s cuteness, but important for both parties to express their perspective. (Oliver did get his paws off the counter after I took his picture, at which point he got a carrot.)

How to handle unrealistic requests (or ones that seem that way!)

The other day, I witnessed exchanges among employees during a cross-department meeting of folks that were working on an important and complex project for their company. The team leader was running a tightly-controlled meeting, covering lots of details about tasks and schedules that needed to be done in order to reach the next established milestone.

On many occasions in the hour-long meeting, the team leader issued several requests, prefaced by phrases that resembled this mantra: “It should only take a minute for you to do” or “It’s a quickie request” or “This won’t be a big deal.”

Maybe those words were intended to be comforting but they actually sent a signal that disregarded the time and talents of those doing the work. It was as if the leader didn’t know — and certainly didn’t care — what was involved by each edict that came down. She was oblivious to the thoughts of those on the receiving end of the orders. The facial expressions, strong with doubt, frustration, and worry, were evident. But she was intent on moving through the agenda with her ideas and plans and there was no space left in the dialogue that allowed for questions, clarifications, feedback, or outright disagreement. The team members sat silent, feeling deflated and defeated about their new workloads before they even walked out of the door.

So what should you do when you get handed something without having the opportunity to express your views on it? You need to find a respectful way to interject your feedback.

I know that’s easier said than done. Sometimes it can be challenging to offer a dissenting view even when the other person shows an interest in hearing the opinion. But it’s really difficult when you have to introduce the topic unsolicited. However, just because someone (even the boss) doesn’t want to hear something, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. The key is to find a time and compassionate manner to express your views when it will be most likely received, so that you have the best chance of getting your point across.

If in the end, your views are still not welcomed or appreciated, you know you’ve done all you can to support the best outcomes. (And there may be times when it’s appropriate to let things slide, you just have to evaluate the importance for the work and how strongly you feel about it.)

Here are some guidelines to help you establish effective ways to express your opinions: 

  • Assess the situation, including the person’s receptivity, which helps you figure out your next step. Just because a person isn’t giving you an opportunity to speak up, it doesn’t mean you should avoid the topic forever. It means you need to tread carefully and thoughtfully in order to capture the person’s attention. If you’re anticipating this type of scenario (such as how the team leader barreled through the project meeting), or similar exchanges you’ve had with a colleague that have become routine — and irritating! — you can plan ahead of time what you want to say and when it’s best to say it. Having a few options (and thinking through possible responses) is always a smart planning technique.
  • What to say and how to say it depends a lot on your relationship with the person. It’s possible that a formal meeting with structure and an agenda is needed to open up the conversation, or your best bet might be a softer, humorous approach. A quick retort can be very effective to changing the dynamic. Being whimsical is fine, but be sure to end with a question that requires some response, so they acknowledge what you’ve said and will give the topic some consideration. Your objective in using humor is to find a light-hearted way to start the conversation, not to solve the issue with a quick joke.
  • Deciding on the best venue can be dependent on the support of others. When deciding whether a public or private forum is best, think of how closely others are also impacted and their reaction. For example, if the team is also impacted, a nudge at the meeting could work. You could say: “I can definitely accomplish part of that assignment in less than 15 minutes but if I’m understanding the task correctly, it will take most of a day to do it right. I’m open to everyone’s thoughts on the parameters and priorities.” That gets everyone involved, for better understanding and consensus about next steps. But keep in mind that starting a discussion in the middle of a frantic-paced meeting may not get you want you want. If you are publicly challenging the leader, along with pushing an important topic into a space that won’t fit, it’s likely a recipe for failure. If that’s the case, opt for a private setting, where you can create an environment that allows greater openness and exploration of the subject.
  • Make a statement that piques curiosity of others. Think intrigue! What could you say that would be intriguing (instead of being defensive)? Ask a question that pulls them into the conversation and become curious about their intent. When you hear comments such as “I think this will be so easy for you” or “I bet you can whip this out in no time,” the person may truly mean it as a compliment. Or they may have a completely inaccurate view of the time and investment required to do what they ask. Make them aware of how you see it. You could respond with: “Gosh, that makes it sound like you think this is simple, and I’m grateful that you give me that much credit! How much time were you thinking this would take?”

Communication is a two-way exchange of ideas. We are often reminded of the importance of listening to others. And sometimes we need to take initiative to do the talking. What advice would you offer to help others speak up and give their perspective, especially when it’s challenging to do so? What has worked for you? 

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6 comments

  1. Donna Brand says:

    Thank you for addressing this topic, Robin. My husband says he is often asked by his supervisors/bosses to do a task which is prefaced by… “When you have a couple of minutes, could you….” or “this should only take a minute”…
    My husband feels insulted by this; that it minimizes and undervalues his work. I have recommended different ways he might address this, including that he respond(in good humor)with something like, “I’d be happy to (do whatever), although it’s likely to take more than a minute”(wink wink).
    That approach didn’t seem to appeal to him.
    I’m going to share this blog with him, and perhaps we can talk it out again…..

    • Robin says:

      Donna, thanks so very much for sharing this feedback. Interesting about the good humored response doesn’t work, perhaps because it doesn’t engage the manager in the conversation further. If there is a way to get the two in conversation about the time requirements, that might be useful in changing the way his manager thinks of these requests. I’d love to hear what develops — I know your husband has good counsel in you!

  2. Richard Giachetti says:

    I’m posting this one outside my office – even though I’m usually the one barreling through the project meeting! And Oliver likes carrots? Really?

    • Robin says:

      Well, I’d love to hear what responses you get from posting this outside your door. Maybe the team will comment on your barreling! 🙂 And yes, Oliver LOVES carrots, but it’s the smell that he’s attracted to. He doesn’t eat them, just rolls around in the scrapings; he thinks it’s the best cat nip ever. It’s hysterical. (Grace likes to eat them.)

  3. Leaf says:

    Robin,
    What a great post. So full of excellent suggestions. If you were to compile these blogs in a book I bet you could sell out because you offer such practical advice with such gracious warmth.

    • Robin says:

      Leaf, how kind of you. I appreciate your support so much. It’s fun to think about the possibility of a book!

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