How do you ask for water?

Clear communication is a prerequisite for collaboration. A lack of clear communication is, perhaps inarguably, the biggest impediment to forming and sustaining effective teams.

Communication is what the listener perceives, not what the speaker utters. However, this does not mean that “it’s all up to the listener”. The attempt at communication starts with the speaker. And the choice of words the speaker uses has a huge bearing on what the listener is wont to perceive.

Let’s take a simple example. Which of these sentences most closely matches how you’d ask another person for water?

How do you ask for water? (image)
Style“I” focused“You/us” focused
Universal truthWater quenches thirst.Water quenches thirst.
General personal truthSometimes, I get thirsty.Don’t you get thirst sometimes?
General personal needSometimes, I need water.Don’t you need water sometimes?
Specific and current personal truthI am thirsty.Aren’t you thirsty?
Specific and current personal needI need water.Don’t you need water?
Indirect requestIt’d be nice if someone got me water.Wouldn’t it be nice if someone got us water?
Direct requestCan you please get me water?Can you please get us water?
Direct orderGet me water!Get us water!
How do you ask for water? (textual table)

Ranging from an absolute universal truth (“Water quenches thirst”) to a direct order (“Bring me water!”); there are many ways in which you could ask another person to help you slake your thirst. And across this range, you could adopt a style that’s focused on you or one that’s focused on the listener.

There is no value judgment attached to any particular style: the claim isn’t that one style is better or worse than another. However, I do claim that if there is a mismatch between the preferred styles of the speaker and the listener, miscommunication is likely to occur. I’d also say that the larger the gap, the higher the likelihood of miscommunication.

For example, let’s assume your listener prefers to hear specific personal truths in an inclusive manner. They may want you to ask them “aren’t you thirsty?” — because their natural inclination is to respond with “I‘m not, but I’d be happy to get you some water.” If you use a direct order with such a listener, they may be less inclined to carry it out: “go get your own water!

Conversely, if your listener favors receiving direct requests centered on you, “can you please get me water?” is the way to go. Asking them if they’re thirsty or need water is likely to cause confusion: “I’m not sure why you’re asking me, but I’m not thirsty and I don’t need water!

So: what do you like to hear when someone asks you for water?