By Juanita Vorster – Anyone who manages people – whether employees or suppliers – has experienced the frustration caused by differences between what they thought they asked for and what they actually got. Or if they’re working with clients, differences between what they actually promised the client and what the client thought was promised.

The amount of communication exchanged between people is higher than ever, but the quality of communication has not followed the same trend. From a business point of view, high quality communication requires less frequent exchange of messages, allowing more time and capacity for productive work.

Effective communication – especially when asking for feedback or for an action – is a crucial skill that can significantly affect productivity and relationships in the workplace. When we spend time and effort ensuring our “ask” is geared to get the desired results, we minimise the risk of misunderstandings, reduce the need for redoing work, and foster stronger professional relationships.

While the skill of an effective “ask” is quite complex, and takes many years to master, one quick tip for busy leaders is to always consider the “T’s & C’s” of an “ask” before sending – or saying – it: Tone, Time, Context, and Clarity. And, yes, these apply to instructions or mandatory required activities as well; it’s always better when people participate by choice rather than on demand.


The tone of the message has a massive impact on the outcome of it. We always need to be aware of our underlying emotions – frustration, anger, irritation, indifference – when we create messages, especially when we’re having conversations with other people. The speed of exchanging messages during a conversation usually doesn’t allow us much time to formulate and check what we want to say, so those emotions can quickly become apparent in our tone of voice and other non-verbal cues.

Even when we’re communicating via text, our emotions might not be as hidden as we think.

A few simple changes to the length and structure of a message, the grammar and punctuation used, and editing something that could be read as demanding, rude or manipulative, can make a dramatic difference in how our “ask” is received. After all, that should be our focus when we decide what – and how, and to who – to say: the action the message is intended to inspire.


The effectiveness of our communication is also influence by when someone receives our message It’s best to assume that their attention is divided when they read or hear our “ask”, and that they will appreciate elements in the message that can help them to prioritise their response or actions. It can be as simple as including when we expect feedback or action from their side, why that specific time is important, and any knock-on effect a late response or delivery might have.

Time and timing also affect the choice of communication platform. When an immediate response to a quick “ask” is needed, an instant messaging platform like WhatsApp or iMessage is appropriate during working hours. After agreed working hours, these platforms should really only be used for emergencies. Remember: a lack of planning on our part does not constitute an emergency on their part!

An “ask” that includes more detail is best left for email. These types of “asks” often require deeper consideration, and we should therefore not expect an immediate answer. The reduced immediacy of email also allows for the editing of messages towards the greater goal of effective communication, especially when we’re managing misunderstandings, conflicts or sensitive topics.

If the “ask” is instructional or requesting an action, give context for the “ask”. Explain what led to the “ask”, why they are receiving the “ask”, and which other tasks, projects or people are interlinked.

If the “ask” is part of an ongoing conversation, and it is intended to clarify a misunderstanding, don’t be afraid to state that the purpose of the “ask” is to identify and clear up an evident misunderstanding before continuing with the task at hand.


When we’re in a hurry, details that might be helpful to the person receiving our “ask” are often left out of our messages. Even if it is reasonable to expect that the other person will know the requirements – why, what, who, where, when and how – relevant to the “ask”, assuming that the other person already knows these things is one of the biggest communication mistakes we can make.

When we have no specific requirements for the response or action to our “ask”, we should include that details and emphasise that what we require is to take initiative on the format and structure of their response or action. Otherwise, the first response we may get will most probably be a time-wasting “more information required” message.

In a situation where the person we are communicating with is seemingly not understanding us in the desired way, simply restating our “ask” in a similar way to the original message almost guarantees the confusion and frustration to continue.

We will do much better if we make sure that the other persons understanding of the details of our “ask” aligns with our intentions. The best way to do this is by giving them an uninterrupted opportunity to summarise the key points they understood from the communication up to that point. Listen carefully, as very often it is a very small, seemingly unimportant piece of the puzzle that is askew that is the root of miscommunication.

The responsibility of effective communication is shared between everyone involved in the communication, but the only control we have over getting better answers is how we ask our questions.


Juanita Vorster is an independent business advisor