How to give and receive generosity
The thought of asking someone to help us can be uncomfortable.
Even Amanda Palmer, who wrote The Art of Asking, has struggled with this. In her book, she wrote about “the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak.”
So you may be surprised to hear that many people won’t mind if you ask them for a Favor. They may even like you more.
Helping others can make people feel important and valued. People tend to feel good when they do something generous.
That’s not to say that you should ask others to do everything for you, but a reasonable favor now and then can help our careers, and our lives. After all, sometimes we need a Letter of recommendation, help getting out of a tight spot, or advice.
Still chattering your teeth at the thought of asking? Here are a few tips to make the process go smoothly.
Give a reason
Worried that the person will say no? Give a reason why you need the favor.
A study was done in the 1970s, and still holds up. It was performed at a copy machine, when there was a line of people waiting to use it.
The study found that if people make a request to cut the line and gave a reason, starting with the word “because,” people are more likely to let them do it. It works even if the reason (“because I need to make copies”) seems obvious.
It seems we tune out after the word “because,” and assume the reason is important.
Example in action:
Bland: “Can you write me a letter of recommendation?”
Better: “Do you have time to write a letter of recommendation for me? I need one, because I’m applying to (program).”
Aim for win-win
Anyone who’s ever moved can verify this tip. Want someone to help you? Here are the magic words: “Can you help me move on Saturday? I’ll order pizza for everyone.” The person asking gets help, and the helper gets a free lunch.
Recently, a photography student asked if he could take portrait photos of me for an assignment. He didn’t know many other people he felt comfortable asking. I’m no model, but awhile back, I was taught how to pose by a professional. I said sure and did a quick shoot, thinking that was it.
Two weeks later, he surprised me with several beautiful prints of me. I was delighted. Had he never asked and simply dropped the class, neither one of us would be as happy.
Being willing to help others may make others willing to help you. It’s not a quid pro quo — nobody likes someone who tallies up everything they’ve contributed and says, “You owe me.” Some people may be able to help more than others, and that’s okay.
The back and forth of giving and receiving favors is also an important part of networking. You may not be able to pay someone back, but you can pay it forward, helping someone else in your network — and then everyone gets a boost.
And if you help someone, most people will remember you as a generous person, and spread the word to others.
Sometimes, we can’t really offer anything in return for the favor. Sure, we can write a thank-you note after, but that doesn’t seem like much.
The best way to have your request approved in this situation is to be as prepared as possible. If you’re asking for a recommendation letter, give a copy of your résumé or a list of your accomplishments for the writer to refer to.
Don’t make demands. Awhile back, someone asked me for help finding his college-aged child a job.
That is, he wanted one of my friends (who worked at a specific company) to arrange for their child to get a job offer there. Not “put in a good word.” He wanted a job waiting on a platter, even though the recent grad knew nothing about the company or the line of work.
I tried to explain that this wasn’t how the industry worked, and suggested his child put in an application.
The response: “He did, and nothing happened!”
“OK, I’ve got an idea,” I said. “My friend is attending a party in a few weeks. Have your son come with me, and I can introduce him.”
The response? The person shouted, “He doesn’t need a job in a few weeks! He needs a job NOW!”
Needless to say, I didn’t make the introduction.
If you’re asking someone to be a mentor, don’t be too pushy, either. Don’t bombard your mentor with calls or e-mails all the time (they have a career too!).
Don’t be afraid of “no”
I think our biggest fear when we ask for something is that people will say “no.” But even if you make a polite, reasonable request, people will not always be able or willing to help. People are busy and have projects of their own.
A simple, “No problem” is all you need to say, and move on. Maybe circumstances will change and that person will help you in the future, so don’t burn that bridge.
Have a backup plan. Need two letters of recommendation? Ask for three. Need a ride? Download Uber just in case. Going on a road trip? Get a roadside assistance plan.
If you’re self-sufficient most of the time, people may take notice and be more willing to help when you truly need it.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us to admit that we need help. But whether it’s asking for a letter of recommendation or for someone to watch your pet through the afternoon, sometimes we depend on other people.
So, go ahead and ask. The answer may surprise you.
Want to Improve Your Life? Ask For a Favor was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.