Benjamin Franklin famously once attempted to win favor with a political adversary by writing him a letter requesting to borrow a rare and valuable book that he owned. A short time afterwards, Franklin reported that this usually stubborn, often hostile gentleman sought him out in the House and spoke to him for the first time. It seems Franklin recognized that, in certain circumstances, asking for assistance can be an effective means of reducing conflict.
But what if you’re not Benjamin Franklin? What about us ordinary folks who ponder the pros and cons of soliciting assistance on a project from an icy-faced colleague, or requesting the help of a grumpy neighbor? Moreover, what about situations where there is no conflict, yet the thought of asking still raises anxiety levels? For example, think about that cute guy or girl on the bus that you admire from a distance but have yet to pluck up the courage to ask out on a date.
Asking can be daunting. Fortunately reassurance is at hand—and from an unlikely source.
If you are the kind of person who views asking as a risky business—one laced with the fear of rejection, embarrassment and a bruised ego—then here are three reasons why you might want to think again, each informed from scientific studies.
Reason #1: People are more likely to say ‘yes’ than you think.
The respected psychologists Frank Flynn and Vanessa Bohns have conducted numerous studies looking at many different requests; from soliciting charitable donations to borrowing a stranger’s phone to asking people to fill out lengthy questionnaires. In each case study participants are first asked to predict the likelihood that the people they ask will agree to their request. And in most cases they underestimate their success rate—by around half.
So why do we typically underestimate the likelihood that people will say ‘yes’ to our requests? One reason is that requesters tend to focus attention on the costs that others will incur if they do say ‘yes’ to them (such as their time and resources). In contrast, potential helpers are much more likely to pay attention to the social costs of saying ‘no’.
A simple truth emerges from Flynn and Bohns’ research. People are far more likely to say ‘yes’ than people expect. The result? Potential business opportunities are lost. Prospective clients go un-contacted. And networking opportunities wasted.
Reason #2: Asking doesn’t weaken your power, it boosts it.
We’ve all likely been a passenger in a car driven by someone who is lost but refuses to stop for directions in the mistaken belief that asking is a sign of weakness. But often a temporary display of weakness (in this case admitting that you’re lost) will be the route to finding yourself in a much more powerful position. In the case of the lost driver, asking for directions from a local resident or gas attendant immediately grants the driver access to crucial help and assistance that returns him to a position of power.
So rather than being seen as limiting, it’s far better to view asking for help as empowering. This should serve as comforting, especially to those in difficult situations—for example folks in financial difficulties or the victims of bullying— who may feel that they will be stigmatized for seeking assistance.
Even the student who raises a hand and asks what she believes might be a silly question increases her power in two ways. First, she will likely gain the extra information needed to allow for an important learning. Second, she’ll also gain the thanks of her classmates, many of whom are also stuck, but who failed to ask.
When it comes to asking, it turns out that making a small change—in this case adding just six words as a prequel to your request—can lead to a big difference in whether you will be assisted. In one study (also conducted by Flynn & Bohns) 57% of people approached at a busy subway station and asked to complete a questionnaire were willing to do so. But when the request was preceded by the words “Can you do me a favor?” before the same request was made, 84% complied.
It was the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche who observed, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." When it comes to asking it seems he may have a point.
Reason #3. You’ll actually feel better if you ask.
In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Thomas Giloviqh and Victoria Medvec show evidence for a temporal pattern to the regret of not taking action. Simply put, any pain and embarrassment that may be felt as a result of taking an action or being refused a request tends to be acute and temporary. Like a bee-sting, it smarts for a few minutes but then rapidly subsides.
In contrast, the regret that one feels for inaction is entirely different. Unlike a momentary pinprick, this pain tends to be more of a dull ache that hangs around for longer. Like a broken record repeatedly playing ‘if only …’ in your head.
On reflection then, and with so many reassuring check marks on the plus side of asking, maybe the time has come to reach out to that icy-faced colleague or grumpy neighbor.
And be sure to let us know how tomorrow morning’s bus journey goes too!