November 2013

Negotiating Requests

By Jay W. Vogt

Precision in speaking is as important in work settings as precision in writing. Master this simple yet powerful way of bringing clarity of speaking to the everyday task of negotiating requests, and you will be more effective at getting things done.

Making A Clear Request
Saying, “Can you get this done for me?” while waving a sheaf of papers at someone, is not a clear request. A clear request states specific conditions for success and specifies a completion date and time. “Can you summarize these notes using our standard protocol by 4 p.m. today?” communicates both your desired result and your deadline for getting it done.

Build a habit of making clear requests and it is less likely that you will be disappointed by tasks not being done to your liking or being done later than you need them.

Responding Clearly To A Request
You will be on the receiving end of many requests. When these requests come to you without clear, specific conditions for success, or without a deadline for completion, ask for more information, saying, for example:

  • “What would you like this to look like when it’s done?”
  • “By when do you need this?”

Once you understand the nature of the request clearly, close the communication loop with the person making the request. In theory, you can accept or decline the request:

  • Accept the request, saying, “Yes, I’ll get it done by then.”
  • Decline the request, saying, “No, I can’t do that for you.”

In practice, you had better have a very good reason for declining a request!

Negotiating A Request
In between these areas of black and white, however, there is ample gray for negotiation. You have two options for negotiating a request:

  • Make a counteroffer, and
  • Commit to commit at a later date.

When making a counteroffer, you respond with an alternate condition, or deadline, or both. For example, you might say:

  • “I can have it to you by your standard, but not by 4 p.m. Could I get it to you by 10 a.m. tomorrow instead?”
  • “I can have it to you by 4 p.m., but without the usual supporting detail. Would that work for you?”

Don’t assume that a request cannot be negotiated. You can test how firm the conditions are, or the deadline is. Sometimes there is considerable flexibility, and sometimes there is not. If not, you can be clear about the consequences.

  • “Okay, I can get it to you by your standard by 4 p.m., but I will have to push off one or two other requests. What do you recommend?”

If, in that moment, you lack critical information that you need to accept the request, decline it, or make a counteroffer, you can commit to commit at a later date, saying, for example:

  • “I’m meeting with our boss in an hour, and she may have a critical request relating to the board meeting. Can I get back to you one way or the other in two hours?”

Speaking Clearly
These suggestions are not meant to reduce your speaking to a rigid formula. Rather, they are meant to make you more aware that every request involves a transaction between you and another person. Every time you receive a request, you are making a commitment to someone. By making a habit of consciously accepting commitments, and then delivering on them, you build a quiet but potent pattern of demonstrating reliability and integrity.

Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant, and author of Recharge Your Team – The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at