Failing to ask effectively for what we want is the stuff of low-grade irritation that, over time, can become a source of chronic conflict and tension. Here’s a ridiculously simple way to ask more effectively, be more persuasive without manipulating, and increase the odds a small favor will be granted.
The problem with failing to ask
The longer I do conflict resolution work, the clearer I get that the ability to ask for what we want — directly, confidently, and without aggression or manipulation — is an important factor in preventing and resolving conflict at work and home.
Sometimes, we fail to ask for what we want because we don’t want to put someone out. That’s kindness we need more of in our world, but it has its limitations. Years ago, my husband’s elderly mother called to tell him that her sister was in the hospital. My husband asked what was wrong with his aunt. His mother said she didn’t know. My husband asked, “But don’t you kind of need to know that?” To which his mother replied, “Of course I do! But I don’t want to trouble them with asking.” I hit the jackpot in the mother-in-law department, but this response has brought us years of chuckles.
Sometimes, we fail to ask for what we want because we fear they’ll say no or judge us. But our own mental game can seriously sideline us if this is our default. One of the participants in my Ask Challenge wrote to me and said, “I can’t do the challenge you just sent. It’s repulsive!” When I wrote back asking what was repulsive to her about it, she replied with, “IT’S REPULSIVE BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO APPEAR FINANCIALLY NEEDY AND RUDE. JUST HOW CLUELESS ARE YOU?” The challenge was to ask for 10% off a cup of coffee at her favorite coffee shop.
Sometimes, we fail to ask for what we want because we expect they’ll take care of us. Yet if we cannot be our own self-advocates, should we really expect others to do it for us? When I was 23 and just out of grad school, I was a finalist for a career coach job at a college. I got the job, the other finalist didn’t. A year later, I was promoted to assistant director. The woman I’d beaten out of the coaching job a year earlier got my old job and I was her supervisor. A week after she started, I opened the copy machine and found a document left in it. It was her contract — for $5000 more per year than I was earning now as her supervisor. That’s the day I realized I had to learn to ask.
Sometimes, we fail to ask for what we want because we expect them to read our minds and already know what we want or need. “If they really care about me,” we might find ourselves thinking, “they would know I want this” or “they would know I need them to do that.” When they don’t read our minds sufficiently well, we may pout a bit or get downright ticked off. Over time, this is the stuff of chronic tension.
Unfortunately, our loved ones and work colleagues suck at reading our minds [click to tweet this]. It’s as much a sign of love to communicate our needs clearly to our partner as it is for them to guess what we need. It’s as much a sign of respect to communicate our desires clearly to our colleague as it is for them to guess what we’re thinking.
Getting better at asking
So, learning how to ask clearly, confidently, and without aggression or manipulation is a wise skill to improve.
As I said in the Ask Challenge, starting small and building our “ask muscle” is a very good way to do this. Small asks with little real consequence in our life help us avoid feeling intrusive on others, minimize the impact on us if they say no or judge us harshly, and take mind reading out of the picture entirely.
One way to be a better and more persuasive asker
A landmark study from the 1970s uncovered a lovely little insight about effectively asking for small favors.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer was actually studying mindlessness in her now-famous Copy Machine study. In the study, Langer arranged for someone to interrupt people who were in the middle of making photocopies in a busy office. The person would interrupt in one of three ways:
- “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
- “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
- “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
The results were pretty interesting. When the interrupter just asked to cut in, the request was granted about 60% of the time. But when the interrupter provided a reason, the request was granted over 90% of the time — even when the reason was essentially meaningless, as in that third option.
That meaningless third option lost its power when the interrupter had a large request (many pages to copy).
How to apply this
To be more persuasive in your own requests, keep your ask simple and straightforward, just like the interrupter in the Langer experiment. I don’t recommend supplying a fake reason. In ongoing relationships at work and home, manipulation will eventually come back and slap you upside the head.
If you’re a mediator, coach, or manager intervening in others’ conflict, and someone states what they want or need but fails to introduce their own “because,” it’s easy to help them communicate their request more clearly. If you’re the recipient of someone else’s request and they fail to explain why, it’s also easy to pleasantly and directly get that information.
Speaker: “I just need him to ___.”
Your tone of voice matters here. I’m not recommending the kind of “…because…?” that sounds like a challenge to a fight. Think: Curious and kind.
Don’t try to fill in the blanks for them (you may miss an option and cause an inaccurate reply). Don’t fill in the air space. Just ask and wait.