This post originally appeared in my newsletter.
You know that thing that happens when you want to ask for something, but you’re not sure you’re going to get it – or even that you’re really entitled to it? Do you find yourself going to great lengths explaining why you should have it, why it’s the right thing to do, or why you can’t do what someone’s asked for?
That’s what I call a “runaway explanation.” And it’s a common response when you feel uncertain or vulnerable.
You might be uncertain about whether you really deserve what you want (such as vacation time without checking in with your clients). Or you might feel vulnerable about about something you find personally difficult or embarrassing (for instance, a mistake of some sort).
Or you may find yourself in the grip of a runaway explanation when you’ve been asked a challenging question. I’ve heard otherwise calm, articulate people dissolve into a stream of justifications when all they really meant to say was, “Sorry, no.”
When you’re uncertain about what you’re asking for or how to respond to something unexpected, your tendency will be to over-explain in an attempt to justify your position. This often leads to feeling even more flustered, off-balance, and weirdly inarticulate, even as you listen to the words pouring out of your mouth.
You’re much more likely to get what you want – and less likely to embarrass yourself by providing way too much information – when you can contain this tendency. So here are some suggestions for avoiding runaway explanations.
Notice your doubts
Start by noticing how you feel. You could be letting clients know you’ll be unavailable, following up with someone about a project you really hope they’ll hire you for, or saying “no” to taking a client to dinner because of a previous commitment. Pause and listen for that internal voice of doubt.
It might be saying, “But this is the busiest time of year – I can’t take time off now!” or, “I don’t think they liked my proposal. I should just let it go,” or, “Wow, that’s a very important client…I can go to Jessie’s next soccer game.”
Notice what your doubts are saying and what you really want out of this situation. Your urge to go on and on in a runaway explanation, justifying exactly why you need uninterrupted vacation time, that great project, or how you made a commitment to your family – it’s a direct response to your doubts about what you want.
The common assumption is that because you feel those doubts, your audience will also. However, that’s a very dangerous assumption. Instead, your runaway explanation actually brings up doubts and questions in your audience’s mind – questions that would otherwise never have occurred to them.
Keep it simple – then stop!
What’s the simplest possible way to phrase your request or your response to a question? Say it, and stop.
“I’m going to be out of the office next week – no email or phone messages – so please let me know now if you think there’s anything you need from me before that.” (There’s no need to say why you’ll be unavailable..)
“I’m really excited about your project – is there anything else you need from me to make your decision?” (Your proposal already has all the background information your prospective client needs to make his decision; you don’t need to repeat any of it.)
“That evening won’t work for me – I’ve got a conflict. Can we have dinner next week instead?” (No need to say what the conflict is. A commitment is a commitment, whether it’s to ten-year-old Jessie, to a class you’re attending for business, or to yourself for some rest and relaxation.)
Say it, and STOP. Bite your tongue if need be, but STOP.
Who are you convincing?
Although it might appear that the runaway explanation is an attempt to persuade your audience that your request is reasonable and should be granted, you’re actually trying to convince yourself.
And your doubts are based in emotion, which seldom (if ever!) responds to logic. So any attempt to convince yourself that your doubts are unfounded is likely to fail.
Instead, skip the logical argument. Just stay clear about the doubts themselves. Otherwise they’ll sneak up on you when you’re making your request – and you’ll find yourself right back in the middle of that runaway explanation.
Stay focused on simplicity
You may be pleasantly surprised: you may not get follow-up questions, but instead just hear, “Okay, sure.”
But if there are follow-up questions, keep your answers just as short and to the point as your initial statement.
You might need to provide additional facts (what you can provide for your client so he’ll be okay when you’re unavailable, ways to change the scope or schedule to work better for your client’s great project, or other days and times when you’re available for dinner). But you don’t ever need to provide personal details about how much you want a day off to rest, the importance of the project to your business goals, or your promise to Jessie that you’d be there to watch the game.
Confidence – both ways
People who provide just the information necessary in situations such as these project a powerful sense of confidence.
And rightly so. The runaway explanation is a response to your own doubts that then brings up those doubts for the people listening. Therefore, when you make your request or respond to questions with brief, simple, factual statements, you sound poised, confident, and sure of yourself.
There’s real power in being able to simply accept the doubts you feel and control your tendency to blurt out justifications for what you want. You’ll project confidence – and you’ll find yourself feeling more confident as well.
So notice your tendency to indulge in runaway explanations, discover the doubts that lie behind it – and put on the brakes!
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Shakespeare, 1564-1616, English poet and playwrite; from Hamlet, act 3, scene 2.