6 ways to ask for help…and get it

By Josh Mait
The Brief
No matter how much success you’ve achieved, or how high your position is within your firm, chances are you still need to persuade people at work to help you out from time to time. It’s a fraught area for most people. As it turns out, there are strategies you can use, based in behavioral science, that will make the ask a lot easier and increase your chances of getting a “yes.” And per usual, it all comes down to timing. 
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When you need to ask for help its often the hardest time to make the ask. On one hand, this is one reason we build networks in the first place—to surround ourselves with a support system. On the other hand, admitting you need help and seeking it out is no easy task. Here are six steps to help you get what you need…

…when you hear “no.”

You probably learned about the “door in the face” technique in Psychology 101: If you ask for something big, and someone says no, you can successfully ask for something smaller. But according to a 2011 study, it’s not enough to ask again—you have to ask again immediately. In the study, restaurant customers who were offered dessert at the end of the meal and refused were much more likely to purchase a smaller item, like coffee, if it was offered immediately after their initial refusal as opposed to three minutes later. 

Takeaway: Before reaching out for a favor, take some time to think about your goals and how this person might help you reach them. Lead with your biggest request, and if you hear “no,” be sure to have a smaller request in your back pocket. 

…when you hear “yes.”

The “foot in the door” technique—that is, asking for something small, then progressively making larger and larger requests—is another strategy where timing really matters. Researchers found that asking for another favor too quickly led to resistance from study participants, who didn’t like being barraged with requests. Let’s face it—who would? 

Takeaway: When someone agrees to do something small for you, make it clear that you appreciate his time, and let him cool off a bit before you ask for more. And if you’re wondering which of these two techniques to use (foot in the door vs. door in the face) don’t stress too much; both strategies are effective, but neither is more effective than the other

…when your relationship is shaky. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but if you’re trying to improve your relationship with a colleague, ask for a favor, even if—especially if—he wants nothing to do with you. Benjamin Franklin, who famously described how he turned a work rival into a good friend simply by asking to borrow a book, noted this strange phenomenon in his autobiography. The so-called “Benjamin Franklin effect” was later tested by behavioral scientists, who verified that doing someone a favor causes positive feelings towards a person—and not the other way around.  

Takeaway: If you want to warm up icy relations with a colleague, ask him for something small, and thank him for his time. He’ll be more likely to smile at you in the break room, and more likely to do you favors in the future.

…when you have to ask for something big.

No one likes being “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry), but the impact of a good meal may be greater than you think. One study found that judges granted 65 percent of parole requests right after breakfast, but next to none in the hour before lunch.

Takeaway: Hunger can make people foggy and irritable, so if you really need a favor, wait until the early afternoon (or take your colleague out to lunch) to maximize your chances.

…when you’ve been out of touch.

Have you ever gotten an email from someone you hadn’t heard from in years, asking you for a favor? Chances are, that wasn’t the first line of their email—it was probably buried near the bottom, somewhere in between “How are the kids?” and “See you soon.” These emails come across as insincere, and according to the writer and TK Simon Sinek, they rarely get positive responses.  

Takeaway: Sinek advises leading with your request and saving the chit-chat for later. By making your request at the end of an email, he points out, you’re actually telling the recipient that you don’t really care about Billy’s karate classes, but you feel like you have to ask to get what you want. Be upfront with what you need, and the pleasantries will sound a lot more pleasant.

…when you’re on hard times.

A recent case study on asking for favors found that people were more likely to be altruistic when they knew someone really needed their help. In spite of this, many people still talk themselves out of asking for favors because they’re not in a position to return them.

Takeaway: It may be difficult to admit that you’re struggling, but being open about the challenges you’re facing makes it much more likely that you’ll get the support you need. And no, that doesn’t mean crying on the boss’s shoulder; it’s as simple as saying “I can’t do this. Can you help?” to get people in your corner.

Ultimately, your level of success in asking for help will come down to the strength of your connections. Healthy relationships breed reciprocity and will pre-dispose your contacts toward helping you. So, begin by investing in your network, and you’ll reap the rewards when it counts the most. 

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