How to Phrase Your Request To Achieve Success

May 3, 2024

I was recently watching an Instagram reel, where this parenting expert recommended NOT forming a request in the question form, along with the word please, but rather to make the request in command form. It got me thinking.

When you want to inspire some type of action – be it from a child or an adult – to achieve a goal, how do you phrase your request?

Do you tell them straight, for example: “Do your work,” with a kind (or not so kind) but firm tone in your voice? Or maybe an agitated voice, if you are feeling frustrated?

Do you pose a polite question: “Would you do your work, please?”

Or, do you deliver your message with a negative or critical statement: “This is terrible. You must do your work!”

The first, a direct order, may not be well received. Firstly, no one likes to be told what to do. Secondly, the person receiving your command may be fearful or resentful of the activity, and this is what is causing the delay inspiring you to issue a command. In either case, a direct order may result in inaction or in doing the work, but without heart and/or without completion. And if the issue is fear or resentment, then another conversation is required to get to the core of the issue.

There are exceptions to this. In my experience, direct orders ARE generally received well when delivered with a smile, a little humor or some love, and as a follow-up to a previous interaction on the same subject. Words. Tone. Delivery. Timing. As always, they make a difference.

The second, a question, leaves room for your request to be delayed or even overruled. “I’ll do it when I feel like it,” which may never happen. Or pushback like: “I don’t want to.” Or, “I don’t feel like it now.” Or, “Why do I have to?”

The third simply squashes motivation and a similar result to the direct order.

So how do we phrase our messaging to inspire willing action and achieve a defined goal, without prompting pushback or creating hurt feelings?

The I-Message

Looking through a public relations lens, I vote for the I-message. I didn’t create this concept, but it’s a central part of the PR Parenting and PR For Life philosophies.

Interestingly, I very recently used the I-message in multiple scenarios to inspire willing action and achieve a goal. In fact, in one scenario, I started by using a question format with a please and got shot down. Then I switched to a command – again, shot down. Finally, I redirected to an I-message – SUCCESS! The bed was made immediately thereafter.

Here are three additional scenarios:

Scenario 1: During a family gathering, I wanted my 15-year-old niece to join for a selfie with her cousins and me. Generally, this is not her thing, and I knew it would be a challenge. I called her name and said with a big smile, “I would love it if you would join us for this photo op. I would be very happy if you are in the pictures.” I made some room for her next to me, motioned for her to come and made a little joke which I knew she’d get. She sheepishly shrugged and with a half-smile, moved from her side of the couch to the spot next to me. Her expression in the selfies is beautiful.

Scenario 2: We were cleaning the house from top to bottom. I said to my 19-year-old, in a what’s next tone of voice, “I need help. I would be very happy if you would help me, please.”  Then I identified what I wanted help with. My daughter simply replied: “ok” and took care of it.

Scenario 3: A team member was doing outreach on my behalf. The original copy was great. Along the way it altered. I commented, “I think I prefer your original text.” Then I provided an example. The team member replied in a friendly tone, that moving forward, the format of the example would be used.   

In all three cases, rather than antagonizing or leaving room for pushback or creating bad feelings, I used the I-message to define my intended goal (everyone in the picture, clean house, use the original format) with my target market (my niece, daughter, team member) and stated how achieving this goal would make me happy or was my preference. It worked.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, not everyone wants to make us happy. How to phrase your request in the event your target market is apathetic, defensive or even somewhat hostile?

In these cases, in addition to the I-message, it’s especially important to refer to the action item in question in the generic, third person. Delete the word “YOU” from the conversation completely. This only antagonizes.  They might not care about making you happy and perhaps may even want to cause you frustration. However, if you are persistent with the I-message strategy, they are likely to honor your request, even if just to check the box.

Overall, the I-message is a good alternative to the other ways to phrase a request. It helps to inspire action and achieve your big picture goals. 

Do you think this could work for you? I’m interested. I’d love to know, and I invite you to write to me to share your experience. Click here to send your message. Or message me on Instagram by clicking here.

Good luck!