A quiet place – getting a response from unresponsive colleagues

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There’s nothing more frustrating than doing a good piece of work, sharing it, and… no reply. You’ve done all the hard work, and you need other people to read it and give a 👍, or even just tell you that they won’t read it, but to go ahead.

You don’t want to pester your colleagues, and you don’t want to be too forceful. But on the other hand you’re blocked from progressing, and in review time you can’t really say “I didn’t get a reply”. Being blocked by colleagues sucks, and is way more common than it should be.

There are a few things that can help to make sure you don’t get blocked.

1. Be clear with what you’re asking:
If the thing you want people to do is buried in other text, they won’t see it. Put the thing that you’re asking them to do at the beginning of the message, in bold if you need to.

2. Ask for something specific:
If you say your piece, and then finish with “Thoughts?” – you’re asking a lot of people.

Imagine a friend telling you a long story about their boss, and then ending with “what do you think?”. It’s often hard to know what part they want your thoughts on, compared to if they just said “was I unreasonable?”.

You’re also inviting them not to respond. Asking for someone’s thoughts gives them a valid response of “I’ve got no thoughts therefore I’m not going to say anything”. And then you’re in a situation where you’re blocked. They probably don’t even realise they’re blocking you by not responding.

Instead, say “This is what I’m going to do, let me know if you have objections”, or something like that. If you absolutely need their input, be clear about the question that you’re asking. “Do you believe this is a valid concern?” is much more likely to get a response than “What do you think?”.

3. Don’t ask the whole room:
Asking an individual person for something is far more likely to get a response than asking everyone.

If you pass someone on the street asking for help, you’re far more likely to give it if it’s just you, than if there are hundreds of people around. There’s something about being asked individually that just makes us more likely to help. 

So don’t ask a whole Slack channel for something. Ask privately, or name the individuals that you need to respond. Don’t give anyone an excuse to think “someone else will answer this”. This is the same principle as “if everyone owns a problem, no-one owns it”. It’s your job to give your problem an owner.

4. Give a deadline:
If you say “read this”, it’s unlikely to happen. If you say “read this by tomorrow”, it’s much more likely to get read. The absence of a deadline invites people to make up their own, and they will prioritise it lower than you would, so it goes to the back of the list.

Giving them a deadline shows that you care about it. And if you don’t care about, why should they

5. Tell them what happens if you don’t get a response:
This is a powerful way to unblock yourself. The message you want to get across is “if you don’t give me feedback or thoughts, I’m going to go ahead with this thing”. This will give more meaning to the deadline and encourage a response, but also give you permission to take action.

This step is powerful because rather than encouraging people to unblock you, it changes the system so that they are no longer a blocker.

6. If you absolutely need a response, schedule a 1-1:
Sometimes you just need input from someone else, and you can’t skirt around it. If that is the case, schedule a 1-1 with that person. Even if it’s just a 15 minute meeting, you’re setting time aside in their calendar to read the thing, and give you their thoughts.

This can seem like overkill but all you’re doing is setting aside the time for them, and telling them it’s something that you care about.

To summarise: 👎

To summarise: 👍

Last modified: January 7, 2020