Many of us are uncomfortable asking for what we want. We either fear rejection or want to avoid being viewed as incapable of doing something by ourselves. But I believe that “making an ask” is a powerful way for us to connect with people. The connection we create makes room for a cycle of giving and receiving, benefiting many people and causes along the way.
When we make an ask – a request, rather than a demand or imposition – the responses usually are: yes, no, maybe, or not right now. If we don’t ask, we have already determined the outcome as no. Asking is the only way to allow for the possibility of yes.
When my husband’s job relocated us to Darwin, a small town in Australia, I contacted the head of policy at a government department and expressed my desire to work on her team. She told me there were no vacancies, but she was intrigued by my note and was willing to have coffee and chat. Within a few hours of our casual meeting, I received a call from her to inform me that she had decided to create a position for me to join her team. I was pleasantly surprised by her consideration and flexibility, and I knew it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked.
I have experienced the power of asking in multiple situations and, as a result, have developed a view on the art of asking – what works and what doesn’t.
- Be specific:The more specific your request, the better chance you have of getting what you want. Of course, you can do that only when you know exactly what you want. Take the time to consider the details before you ask. For example, I recently asked one of my friends in India to help me recruit participants for my PhD research. To help her help me, I crafted a succinct yet comprehensive message for her to send to potential participants that answered the following questions:
- Why the research is important, why them, and why now?
- What would be the participant’s specific commitment?
- What are the expected benefits for participants?
- Be reasonable: In addition to being specific, the success of your request also relies heavily on its reasonableness. Marketing tactics such as the “foot in the door” (start with a small request and build up to a big one) or the negotiation technique of the “door in the face” (start with an unrealistic request and then make it smaller) may not be the best strategy, as these can often appear insincere or worse, leave the other person feeling cheated. Being up front and considerate of others’ needs leads to better long-term relationships. Since parenthood, I have had to ask for flexible work hours. When I ask for flexibility, I think about the possible reasons why my request may be declined (e.g. project deadlines, staffing issues, meetings etc.) and prepare a reasonable request for my boss’s consideration. For example, I give assurance that I will meet project deadlines by working after hours and join meetings virtually when needed, and I do so. This ensures that when I ask for flexibility next time, my boss does not have any qualms about saying yes.
- Allow the freedom to decline: When asking for something, it always helps when the person you’re asking understands they have the freedom to decline your request. Showing the other person that you are considerate of their time and effort increases the likelihood of success. I once asked a friend to review the manuscript of my book and clearly articulated that I would understand if she declined given the time commitment with no obvious benefits to her. She considered my request and asked to be sent the chapters of my book individually instead of the entire manuscript, which ultimately worked well for both of us.
- A “no” is not personal or final: While having a request declined is disappointing, understand that it was the request that was rejected and not the asker, and that it may not be final. Perhaps some detail was missing, or the timing wasn’t right the first time. There may be an opportunity to try again in a different way, by tailoring the request or addressing any objections raised in receiving the “no” answer. I recall an instance when I wanted to hire a person who was extremely capable and worthy of the position but had a non-relevant background issue. When I asked my boss for his approval, he declined because of that issue. I re-examined my rationale for wanting to hire this individual, then provided my boss with a clearer case for why we would be served well by this person being part of our team despite the background issue. This time my request was granted. Of course, this only works if you understand the other person’s perspective, so it is often worth asking for reasons when you get a “no.” You can then assess whether the objections are final and insurmountable, or whether they have left open a door for further requests.
The simple act of asking is the first step. Try asking someone for something specific and reasonable, allow them the freedom to say no, and remember that a “no” is not personal and final. With practice, you will discover the power of asking.