8 Ways You Can Better Respond to Unrealistic Demands


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This is a guest post from Colin Gautreyan author, trainer and executive coach who has specialized in the field of power and influence for over ten years. He combines solid research with deep personal experience in corporate life to offer his audiences critical yet simple insights into how to achieve results with greater influence. 

We’ve all been there. You get a call (or more likely an email) requesting that you do something immediately or within an impossibly short space of time. Alternatively, they may be asking for something that you simply do not have the resources to be able to deliver. Many times, these requests feel more like orders — people demanding that you do things without giving a thought to what else you have on your plate.

In these situations, it is all too easy to react emotionally — especially if the definition of “unrealistic” is stretched to the extreme. Your plans for the day are thrown off course, other people may be let down, and those people may be your loved ones. No surprise that you may feel angry or frustrated by the lack of consideration shown by the person making the demand.

If you’re struggling to respond to unrealistic demands:

Response Strategies

  1. Don’t respond — pause instead. Take a deep breath and let the emotion calm a little. Emotions are natural and healthy. However, an emotional response is seldom a good idea. Remember that it is not what others do to you, but how you respond that makes the big difference in effectiveness. Once you have calmed down, you’ll be able to think clearly on the points below as you prepare to respond.
  2. Ask them why. If a request is made, regardless of how realistic it is, there will be a reason for it. Until you ask why, you will be at risk of responding incorrectly. When you ask, listen carefully and intelligently. Maintain a positive and curious demeanour instead of appearing defensive and upset. Don’t tolerate replies like: “Because I want you to.” Or “It’s important.” Strive for the facts.
  3. Check the what. Words have different meanings to different people. As you are asking why, develop it into a discussion about exactly what it is they want you to do. Many unrealistic demands appear that way because of lack of understanding about what is actually being asked for. Interestingly, unrealistic demands often come from people who are themselves under pressure. Consequently, the first casualty is often the care they take with their communication. Rushing off hasty and poorly worded emails is easy when you’re stressed. So, strive again for the facts.
  4. Find out why. The “why” people tell you may not be the real why, for a number of reasons. The point here is, where appropriate (and feasible), seek corroboration for the purpose behind the request. Once you can be sure of what is motivating the request, you may realise that what they are asking for is actually not as necessary as they think it is. If you can spot an easier way to solve the problem or issue that they need help on, everyone can win.
  5. Consider the consequences. What knock-on impact does accepting (or tolerating) the unrealistic demand have? The person who is making the demand is probably only one of your stakeholders or customers. If you are supposed to be attending to other powerful people’s requests, why should you let this new request knock you off course? What risks does this new demand bring?
  6. Review your approach to influencing stakeholders. It is easy to overlook important and vital elements of influencing your stakeholders such as their goals, agenda, and decision process — don’t make this mistake.
  7. Think about the opportunities. Yes, it may be unrealistic, but perhaps there is a positive here too. One of the great things about unrealistic demands is that on the other side is someone is desperate need of something. That brings a certain amount of power to your side. If they need you to do something, how might you be able to turn this to your advantage? Sometimes is could be as simple as influencing them to manage the expectations of other stakeholders, so you don’t have to do it yourself. Other bargains could also be struck so that you can find a way you can both win.
  8. Engage your other stakeholders. Appropriately involve other people. Not to assemble a defence force, but to manage expectations, increase collaboration and collectively make a prudent decision can people can buy-in to. Now, I have to be honest with you, there is a lot of work here — but in my view represents the most important element of responding to unrealistic demands. Until you have the kind of clarity needed to address each of the points above, there is little or no point in talking about other aspects of responding such as pushing back, negotiating or reaching agreement. They can only be useful once you have worked out what you want and/or need to do.

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