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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Save Yourself All the Time With This One Conversational Shortcut

Hero Images/Getty Images
Hero Images/Getty Images

Do you have time to hop on a call? Want to grab a coffee to chat? Could I pick your brain?

Chances are, those sorts of requests sound familiar. And, if you’re anything like me, they typically inspire a mix of emotions. Yes, you’d love to be accommodating. But, at the same time, you only have so many hours in your day—and, typically, the numerous items on your to-do list take precedence over lending your ear to someone else for an hour or so.

So, what do you do? Send back a politely-worded email (like one of these) turning that person down?

That might not be necessary if you use this one simple question that Marc Köhlbrugge, founder of BetaList, recommends in his Medium post: How can I help?

“When people ask to ‘jump on call’ (who the heck came up with that phrase?) or ‘grab a coffee’ they generally want something from you, but they are either too afraid to ask for it directly, want you to get invested (cunning sales people), aren’t sure of their question, or are just used to wasting time on calls and meetings,” he explains in the post.

It makes sense. But, I still wasn’t thoroughly convinced that this tactic would work. I’ve spent years crafting lengthy emails talking my way out of various meetings, phone conversations, and coffee dates. Could it really be as simple as using this four-letter question?

I put Köhlbrugge’s suggestion to the test, and I’m pleased (and, admittedly, slightly surprised!) to say that it really does work.

When a prospective freelance writer emailed to ask if I could chat with her in-person, I responded by asking her if there was something specific she needed help with. She sent back a few questions, which I was then able to answer via email—and, she was thrilled with the detailed responses that she could refer back to later.

When a PR firm sent me a message on Twitter with a vague request to schedule a phone chat, I used Köhlbrugge’s tactic to briefly explain that I try my best to stay off the phone, but I’d be glad to hear if there was something in particular I could help with. He replied back with a pitch for a new app he was hoping I’d write about, which I said I’d keep in mind.

Yes, writing responses still took a little bit of time. But, it involved way less of an investment than a long-winded phone call or in-person chat would’ve required. Köhlbrugge says that this is because putting things in writing cuts down on small talk and also forces people to communicate more clearly—which ultimately saves both of you more time.

So, the next time you’re faced with a request to hop on the phone or meet up for a vague purpose, try implementing this “How can I help?” trick. Take it from me—it really works.