Asking Can Lead to Success

Many years ago, I had a summer job as a server at a high end hotel. The management decided to run a contest. Whoever could get the most comment cards filled out would win a sweatshirt.

As I write this, that sweatshirt is sitting in my dresser drawer.

Here’s how I did it: I asked. When my guests finished their meals, I’d thank them for dining with us, and I’d let them know that I’d really appreciate it if they could fill in the comment card that came in every billfold, as there was a contest on.

Many of my coworkers considered this unfair, as if being open with the guests to enlist their help was cheating.

Looking back, I’m not surprised. Although coming right out and asking is often the best way to get what we need, many of us are uncomfortable doing it.

Which is a shame. To quote hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Beyond that, the exchange of help is a key element of any relationship, whether we’re talking about business connections or personal ties. Did you ever know someone who would never admit they needed help? Wouldn’t accept help even if it was clear they needed it? I bet you found it hard to form ties with that person.

Why We Hate To AskAsking

In my experience, the two most common reasons people hate to ask for anything are:

  1. The shame of needing help: Giving is glorified in our society, but receiving is not. Needing help is often perceived as being weak, being a moocher, and being helpless. We are socialized to think there’s great virtue in standing on our own two feet. Amanda Palmer, an alt-rock star who’s made an art of asking fans for support, explores this angle beautifully in both her book and her TED talk.
  2. The fear of rejection: If we ask, we might get turned down. Getting turned down is painful, especially if you’re not used to it. It’s as simple as that. But there’s also a lot of power in making your peace with rejection, as entrepreneur Jia Jiang discovered when he hit bottom and decided to try something called Rejection Therapy. Take a look at his hilarious TED talk to hear all about it.

How To Ask More Successfully

As my sweatshirt contest story demonstrates, I’ve always been a bit more comfortable with asking than the average person. Later on, I spent several years as a professional fundraiser and salesperson, so I’ve now got a strong professional background in it.

Here are some tips based on my experience to make the process go more smoothly:

 1. Always respect a “no”

Something that’s often taught in both sales and fundraising is the idea of “overcoming objections”. I hate this because it often leads to disrespectful, pushy behaviour, and is a big reason salespeople and fundraisers get a bad reputation. When you’re asking someone for something, it’s always their right to refuse. Unless you want to ruin the relationship, your reputation, and possibly your self-respect, honour that right.

It’s ok to ask them (respectfully) why they are refusing, but only to better understand them and the situation. No pressure, ever.

2. Consider the bigger picture

Exchanging help is just one move in the great dance of a connection between two people.

In order for an ask to be successful, it has to be in balance with the rest of the relationship. This means that the asker/giver roles have to switch back and forth. You should be wary of only ever contacting someone to ask for something. You should try to give as often as you receive, and vice versa.

The level of the ask, too, has to be appropriate. You wouldn’t ask someone you just met to be a reference for a big job application. You wouldn’t ask someone you haven’t called in 10 years to plan your birthday party. On the other hand, you wouldn’t launch a major new product line without asking your most loyal customers and suppliers to participate, and you wouldn’t plan your wedding without involving your best friend. It can be just as insulting to ask for too little as for too much.

3. Don’t pretend it’s not an ask

Often, when someone asks me to attend an event or participate in a program or get involved with a group, they frame it as an ‘opportunity’. They try to spin it to seem like they have no self interest and it’s really about creating benefit for me.

Of course everyone likes a win-win situation, when that’s truly what it is. In many cases, the giver does get some benefit from the interaction. But the main reason people ask for things is that they’re looking for a benefit to themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we’re honest about it. If we’re not honest about it, the whole thing gets icky.