When it comes to things they don’t want to do, people generally don’t go quietly. They passively or actively resist, question, argue, and sometimes get angry. Even if they never open their mouths, they’re likely thinking, “I don’t have to do anything! Just watch me!”
Whether speaking to a customer, an employee, or to a child, beginning with, “You’ll have to …” “You must …” or “If you don’t …” is just asking for a fight. In fact, presenting a challenge through demands will likely only get you a challenge in return.
“You’ll have to help Susan; she’s new and doesn’t know how we do things around here.”
“You must fill out this form first.”
“If you don’t clean your room, there’s no way you’re going watch a movie.”
The odds that the response to any of these phrases will be, “You’re right. Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll get right on it,” are pretty slim.
Even if the people you’re speaking with don’t say the following, they’re likely thinking:
I don’t care that she’s new. Why should I help her? I’m too busy!
I don’t have to fill out anything. I’ll take my business elsewhere.
I’m not cleaning anything. Watch me!
To avoid resistance, many people make the mistake of turning a statement of direction into a question. The problem is, when you ask someone a question, you’re leaving it open to them to choose to comply… or not:
Supervisor: “Can you please help Susan learn to log on to the payroll system?”
Employee: “Sorry, I don’t have time.”
Clerk: “Can you please fill out this form?”
Customer: “No thanks.”
Mother: “Will you please clean your room?”
Child: “I’m not really in a cleaning mood today—maybe next week.”
What will you do with responses like the ones above?
When there is no alternative or option, you shouldn’t imply there is one by asking a question. If the employee must help Susan, the form must be filled out, and the room must be cleaned before the child can watch a movie, you shouldn’t ask a question, making the request optional.
To avoid outright resistance and increase the odds that people will willingly do what you ask, you should change the wording of your statements by beginning them with phrasing such as:
“If you …”
“Once you …”
“When you …”
instead of, “You’ll have to …”
“If you can take 30 minutes to help Susan learn how to log on to the payroll system, she’ll be able to work more independently and won’t need to interrupt you as much.”
“Once you fill out this short form, I’ll have all the information I need to fill your order immediately.”
“When you’ve cleaned your room, you can start watching the movies. I know it’s a lot of work, but since Grandma is coming this afternoon and staying in your room, we can’t have things on the floor that she’ll trip on.”
Rephrasing the statement doesn’t change the fact that the person needs to fill out the form, help the coworker, or clean her room. Rephrasing just makes the instructions less demanding and more palatable; it takes out the challenge and makes the listener feel more in control.
That is not to say that everyone will willingly do what you ask if you simply avoid demanding phrases. People may still resist. However, any resistance you face should be less intense or less frequent. Sometimes people will continue to resist because they just like to argue or they flat out disagree with the request. More often though, people resist because they don’t understand the rationale behind the request. That’s why the examples above are not just rephrased, but also provide an explanation of why the speaker is asking the listener to take certain actions. Although not required, an explanation goes a long way toward reducing resistance and gaining compliance.