Ask for favours, the right way

11 February, 2019

Thanks to the "Ben Franklin effect", asking for favours the right way actually makes you more likable.

Last week, I posted about the importance of doing favours to boost personal happiness and success – as well as to create a culture of generosity at work. This week, my message focuses on something that’s much harder for many of us – asking for favours from other people. How can requesting for help when you need it, strengthen interpersonal bonds? And what is the right way to ask for favours?

There are times when each one of us needs a hand. Perhaps you’ve overwhelmed by a project and could really use a colleague’s fresh perspective. Maybe you’d like an introduction to someone who happens to be a friend of a colleague. Perhaps you need flexibility with scheduling because you’re going through a tough time at home.

Whatever the case may be, many of us don’t like asking for help. “I don’t take favours” is seen as a statement of pride. Remember though that relationships are built on give and take. Don’t think of taking help as an uncomfortable debt hanging over your head; someday, you’ll have the pleasure of returning the favour.

Or, you can pay it forward by helping someone else when you have the chance.

The Ben Franklin effect

People are often reluctant to ask for favours because they don’t want to be seen as annoying or presumptuous. In reality, however, when someone does you a favour, they actually end up liking you more – not less. This is because of the “Ben Franklin effect”.

According to legend, Benjamin Franklin wanted to win over a rival legislator. To do so, he took a surprising step: he asked the gentleman to lend him a rare book from his library, and then thanked him sincerely for the favour. The incident marked a dramatic turn in their relationship. As Franklin reports:

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

Psychologists have confirmed Franklin’s insight, with studies showing that asking for a favour personally increases your likeability. The other person is flattered and senses your willingness to be friendly – hence, they reciprocate the same way. On the other hand, an impersonal request decreases likeability. The lesson? Don’t hesitate to ask people for help when you need it – but make sure to do so personally, and in the right way.

The art of favour-asking

In her Harvard Business Review articles, Jodi Glickman recommends a four-step process for asking for favours in a gracious yet effective fashion:

1. Set the stage

Preface your request with “I have a favour to ask you” – this makes it clear that you know it’s a favour, and that you’re not taking the other person for granted. It lets them know that you value their time. Plus, a quick heads-up ensures the listener isn’t caught off-guard and has a moment to prepare their response.

2. Give a reason

People like to know why they’re being asked to do something, so share the reason you need their help. Explaining the “because” behind your ask instantly increases your chances of getting a positive response. But don’t volunteer too much information or minor details – keep it brief and direct.

3. Provide an escape clause

The goal of asking for a favour is two-pronged: to help you out, and to make the other person feel good about helping you out. If they feel forced into it, they’ll resent you. So, make your request in a way that offers the person a chance to decline if it isn’t possible or convenient for them.

Glickman offers the following as a good example of the first three steps:

Anthony, I have a favor to ask you… by any chance could you cover for me at the client dinner tonight? I’m not going to be able to break away from the office. I completely understand if you can’t make it; I know it’s a busy week for everyone.

4. Close the loop

The final step is to follow up with the person after they’ve come through for you. Glickman gives the example of a young family friend who took her help with college applications, but failed to let her know whether or not he got in. This behaviour, Glickman says, will make her think twice about helping the person again.

If someone is kind enough to do you a favour, close the loop by sharing the outcome and thanking them for their contribution in a simple note or a quick phone call. Even if things didn’t work out, let the person know you appreciate their help.

Requesting for help at work

In a professional context, it’s important to ask for favours in such a way that they’re likely to be granted and people doesn’t resent your requests. Here are six useful tips:

1. Ask the right person, at the right time

In 5 Reasons No One Ever Helps You Out When You Ask for Favors (Spoiler: It’s You), Kat Boogaard highlights the importance of approaching the right person:

Have you ever had someone ask you for help with something that’s totally unrelated to your area of expertise or anything you’ve ever been remotely involved with before? It’s annoying (and honestly, a little perplexing), isn’t it?

So, before you reach out to someone with your ask, it’s important that you take some time to consider whether or not this person is someone who could actually help you—even if he wanted to.

Timing is also key, as Boogaard explains:

Your colleague is buried under piles of tasks and to-dos, desperately trying to get ahead on her workload before she leaves for vacation in a couple of days. Yet, you decide that now is the perfect time to ask her to review your super important presentation—oh, and by tomorrow morning, please.

Do you see the problem here? As with anything, your timing is critically important….you should pay close attention to those good times to ask for favors—and, more importantly, those bad times.

2. Get to the point

Many people tend to beat about the bush endlessly before asking for a favour, because they’re uncomfortable and afraid of being rejected. Unfortunately, this could irritate the listener or make them worry about what’s coming – making them less receptive to your request. Even worse, a rambling introduction can make you look insincere, especially if you include unnecessary compliments. Just set the stage briefly (as explained in the four-step process above) and come to the point.

Don’t give dramatic, over-the-top reasons for your request. People usually see through such excuses right away! Instead, be honest about why you need the favour – if it’s reasonable, the other person is likely to empathise and help you out.

3. Give an alternative

If you’re asking for a concession at the workplace – a scheduling or timeline change, for instance – then it’s best to go armed with an alternative plan. You have a much better chance of getting your request granted if you offer a feasible Plan B. This also shows that you put in some serious thought before asking for the favour.

4. Don’t be passive-aggressive

You might be uncomfortable asking for assistance outright, because you feel guilty or see it as a sign of weakness. In such a case, you may continue to do everything on your own – but keep complaining about it all the while! This type of passive-aggressive behaviour simply earns you a reputation for whining. Instead, be open and ask for the help you need; your co-workers will respect you far more.

5. Ask one person at a time

You might be tempted to ask several people for the same favour, assuming that at least one will say “yes”. But what if you get two or more positive responses? That puts you in a very awkward position. Rejecting someone after they’ve graciously agreed to help you out is in bad form. They will likely feel offended and may refuse your requests in the future. So, approach one person at a time. If you need an urgent response, let them know upfront so they can get back to you ASAP.

6. Be willing to give back

Do you frequently ask people for favours, but are somehow always too busy to help them out in return? No-one likes a constant taker, so make it a point to be available for your co-workers when they need a hand, even if it puts you to some inconvenience. At the very least, express your sincere gratitude through a handwritten note or a personal phone call. As Boogaard explains in the article mentioned above:

The world is surprisingly small. And, if you’ve managed to cultivate a reputation as the person who’s constantly asking for assistance without ever providing anything in return, it’s going to become increasingly tough to get anyone to lend you a helping hand.

How do you feel about asking for favours? Are there any tips you’d like to share? As always, I look forward to your thoughts.



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