Are you busy?

I hate that question. There’s just no good way to answer it. If I’m at work and someone asks that, I can’t say no, can I? But if I say yes, the person asking may not follow through with whatever brought him to my office in the first place.

It’s even worse when someone asks in a personal context, and there are several variants: Are you busy this evening? What are you doing on the 23rd? Do you have plans? Unless I have a close relationship to the person asking–and sometimes even then–this question leaves me feeling trapped. If I say no or that I don’t have plans, the person asking often automatically pencils me in for whatever event has spurred the question, even if I have no interest. Of course, that makes a later refusal more awkward. And saying I do have plans may not even allow me to hear the offer. What to do?

Here’s where I’ve landed. On the asking end, I think a small tweak does the job: state the issue first, and then ask about availability. I have this issue/opportunity. Do you have a minute [or 5 or 10, whatever] to help me with it? Or I need someone to watch my kids tomorrow. Can you help? Unless the person I’m asking is in a coma, he’s doing SOMETHING. I don’t need to verify that; what I really want to know is whether he is willing to put his activity aside to handle my issue, attend my event, come to my aid, whatever. When someone asks me a question like that, I feel much more comfortable saying either yes or I’m in the middle of something; can I call you in 30 minutes? or I’m sorry, that won’t work for me. I no longer feel trapped by the question. I have control of my destiny.

On the answering end, I just turn the question around. I’m not under oath in a court of law–yes or no are not the only valid answers. Are you busy? becomes Why? What do you need? or What do you have in mind? Easy enough, and I’m back on equal footing.

For whatever reason, this communications quandary renders me particularly peevish. What starts as a minor annoyance eats at me until it eventually finds its way into a *cough* blog post. Anyway, I try hard to avoid the are-you-busy phraseology. I know it seems like a small thing, but ultimately, the small things set the tone in our relationships.

This “small thing” happens to lean toward the negative, but I promise to share some on the positive side soon. In the meantime, I’d love for you to share the communications challenges that make you cringe–or the opportunities that make your heart sing. Comments?

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