Three Tips in the Art of Asking
Last week I received some bad news that left me preoccupied, overwhelmed and floundering.
As fate would have it, during the same time, I also received over a dozen random requests from people in my network (many of them strangers) asking me to answer questions, provide information or do them a favor.
The requests were not inconsiderate, rude or unreasonable. But, taken collectively, and timed as they were, they were exhausting and unwelcome.
They reminded me that most of us could stand to brush up on our decorum in the art of asking for things.
It’s a skill that works as a two-way street, which many of us navigate by only looking one way.
1. Put your request in the context of their life.
One of the biggest asking etiquette blunders I’ve ever seen was a young woman who hit up a friend for a favor right after he’d had an unexpected death in the family.
The death was something he had processed publicly via Twitter and his blog, and hundreds of us had reached out to him about it. But this young woman was apparently so focused on meeting her own needs that she had overlooked all of this dialogue and discussion.
Keep her mistake in mind the next time you need to ask someone for a favor.
Before you reach out, get a good sense of where this person is at right now. Read any and all of their public-facing social posts and ask around to get the word on the street.
- Did they just get out of the hospital?
- Are they overwhelmed with deadlines this week?
- Did they just have a baby?
- Are they out sick with a terrible head cold?
If so, table your ask for a better time. Or, if it’s urgent, use that information to soften your approach, (e.g. “Hi Joe. I realize you are out sick today, but later this week when you get back could you help me with X?“)
2. Explain what’s in it for them.
In most of the requests I receive, the sender starts off by explaining at great length who they are, what they want to achieve, why achieving it is so important to them, and how they want me to help make it all happen.
There is something vaguely masturbatory about the whole approach.
What I want in this exchange is superfluous from the get go — so superfluous that introductory pleasantries, like, “Hi Jennifer. How are you?” aren’t even used.
(This lopsided focus also happens a lot in face-to-face meetings, too. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has asked me to have coffee with them to give them advice and then stuck me with the check.)
In reality, the needs of the person being asked are extremely important. Because those needs will play a critical role in determining if your request is accepted or not.
Remember, everyone you ask for a favor is striving to maintain a balance between work and family, learning and teaching, personal growth and professional success. Your ask needs to acknowledge that balance and explain where your favor fits in the trade-off.
3. Earn the attention first.
I am happy to do favors for people in my network (when time and life permits.) But, I will be honest that who I choose to help is determined by a number of variables…
- Has this person ever communicated with me before?
- Has this person ever responded to something I tweeted?
- Has this person ever left a comment on my blog?
- Have I ever talked with this person face-to-face?
Basically, have they put forth any effort in building a relationship with me, beyond outlining what I can do for them right now?
Like many people, I return the favor of attention when it is given to me. (Quite frankly, these days it’s a very easy gift to give.) And I do favors for the people who take that attention and build it into something.
How about you? Do you have any tips to help guide you in the delicate dance of asking?