Developing the non-pushy ask
March 10, 2012 9:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I, very much an asker, make it easy and comfortable for an askee if they want to say "no"? or do I need to just not ask?

To give an example du jour, I'd like to ask a fellow parent, a friend but not super-close, if she'd be up for taking my son to a birthday party that I can't make it to. This kind of thing comes up for me a lot for me, though, because I'm very asky, and it often brings a lot of rumination over whether I'm putting people in awkward positions and how to alleviate it. I don't think I'm too terrible about it, usually qualifying requests with lots of it's okay if's etc, but it still feels like I could somehow do better---or like I might need to just be a bit more of a guesser (and live with not knowing if, for instance, my friend would be totally fine with bringing my son.)

In this case I'd be fine with taking her son were the shoe switched. That said, it's not like there are no situations where I could imagine feeling put upon by requests, especially if they came often---and I do have enough of this habit that I find myself asking or wanting to ask friends for things fairly often.

Any thoughts about how to phrase requests, and when to leave them aside?

I guess mine is the anti-question to this.
posted by spbmp to Human Relations (29 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Cushion your question with a huge amount of hedging. "Hey, I know this is a long shot..." "I know you're busy..." "You'll probably say no to this, but is there any chance..." "I can ask someone else if it would be easier for you..."

This seems to work for me. You can'y say it with a guilty, hopeful, look, though, because that makes everyone feel bad, and if you're crushed, they'll start wanting to avoid you. Screw your face up in that expression that says you know you're being totally presumptuous and start off apologetic. If they say no, laugh and joke about it.
posted by quincunx at 10:05 PM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the key is to put her in a situation where she can choose to make the offer, rather than directly asking. So in this case, you might be talking to her and mention that your son wants to go to the party, but you can't take him, and does she know if anyone is going who lives near you/has a spare seat in the car/whatever. It might be very transparent that you are hoping she will offer, but it's okay, because she can answer "Hmm, no, I don't know who else is going", or similar and NOT offer, and that allows everyone to preserve the joint pretense that you never asked her anything and she never refused you.

That's how people in my family always do requests like this because we are all total guessers. I'm learning to be more asky nowadays, though, because I feel like the circumlocation described above is more effort than it's worth, and kind of silly.
posted by lollusc at 10:05 PM on March 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

I am also a bigtime asker. If I'm asking for something in a situation where it's very important to me that the person feel comfortable saying no, I try to include a few good sample reasons they could say no into my request. It's hard sometimes for people to think of what to say on the spur of the moment when they want to decline, and even if they do think of something they might worry it's not a good enough reason.

So in your position I would probably ask about driving your son and in the same sentence, say, "but I totally understand if there isn't enough space in the car or your schedule is too packed that day."
posted by cairdeas at 10:06 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I could be wrong, but this question seems to be motivated by feelings that you might be asking people for favors too often.

If you feel that way, you probably are. I'd see if there weren't other solutions that could make you less reliant on asking for favors. Usually if the direct route seems like too much, it's because you know the favor bank is overdrawn.

To answer your question, though: I'd be direct and plain about the request. But make sure you're not badgering them or pleading with your tone / body language. The request needs to be a relaxed no big deal kind of thing for them to feel they can say no. I'd also look at how much you're relying on these people, and if you feel the give and take is equal. If it's not they may get annoyed at constantly doing you favors with little in return.
posted by Zapak at 10:28 PM on March 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

Guesser here. For the example you give, many parents are in the same boat and could well use a favor sometimes too, so just be sure to make it clear you are also open to be asked. One hand washes the other.
In general though, just ask, although I do like lollusc's suggestion of setting things up so that they can offer. But again, I'm a guesser and those are my tactics too.
posted by bebrave! at 10:29 PM on March 10, 2012

One of things that makes this go down easier for me (as a Guesser) is when people take care to add "Please don't hesitate to say no if this doesn't work for you - it's really no problem and I wouldn't want you to do something just to be nice, but only if it's really no trouble." It helps if you can be clear that no is an understandable and acceptable answer, and they shouldn't feel they have to accede just to be polite, because you cornered them. That's what breeds resentment.

And when you're on the end of an Ask, you can assure the person that you will say no if you just can't manage it, no reason required. Just tonight a friend expressed hesitance about "inviting herself" to stay at my place at her convenience. She has an open invitation, though, so I just said "This offer is open whenever it works for you. If you ask to stay at a time when I can't manage it, don't worry, I will just say no, that's not a good weekend." If you can assure someone you'll say no when you need to, they can know that your "yes" actually means yes instead of being a polite effort they'll later resent.
posted by Miko at 10:39 PM on March 10, 2012 [18 favorites]

I agree with cairdeas, if I'm going to ask something that I'm afraid someone might say yes to only out of uncomfortableness, ill set up an easy "out" for them and include it in the question, or text/email the request so they're not on the spot and have a chance to think of a polite excuse.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 10:39 PM on March 10, 2012

I'm not at all an asker, but often get asked by a particular friend to do favors for her or her daughter. It's an awkward position to be put in even if the asker says "it's okay if you can't do it" etc. When put on the spot, it's hard to just say "sorry, I don't feel like taking your son to the party".

To make it more comfortable for the askee to say no, I'd try a casual email. This gives her a chance to think about it and say no if she really doesn't want to do it. The thing that irks me about habitual askers is that there is frequently, in my experience, nothing offered in return.
You could try asking her if she wouldn't mind taking your son to the party, and if she accepts, offer and follow through with a similar favor for her. For instance, "thanks so much for taking Johnny to the party, I'd be happy to watch Michael for a couple of hours next week while you run some errands." This way, you can avoid becoming the friend that's always sucking favors out of everyone and offering nothing in return.
posted by Sal and Richard at 10:43 PM on March 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

As a guesser, I have an issues similar to Sal and Richard.

Askers tend to have the mentality of "If I need something then I will ask for it. If they need something they will ask for it"

But this isn't how guessers see it. For us it is more like "I see that they are in a good position to help me, so I will ask for help. If they see that I am in a position to help them, then they will ask.


Asker: If they need help, they will ask for it.

Guesser: I shouldn't have to ask, Its obvious that I need help (or that it would be polite to offer).

Basically, to be a guesser you have to be very good at interpreting the needs and resources of others without asking, so it is sometimes annoying to guessers when askers don't see that we may need assistance and offer to help without needing us to request it.

My advice to you would be not necessarily to ask less, but to offer more. Every time you ask for a favor:

1) Try to do as the other posters have said and make it very clear that "no" is a perfectly acceptable option and that you will not see them as rude or impolite for saying no.

2) If they say yes, try to perceive a need that they might have and offer to help them with it (thank you so much for your help! I'll take them to the next party, etc).

As admittedly silly as it may seem, this gesture can mean a great deal to guessers. It shows empathy and caring in our "guess language".
posted by Shouraku at 11:42 PM on March 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

Make it a trade. Ask for your favor and offer something in return. Can you take my little Johnny to the party next week? I am unable, but I could take your son to karate next week.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:11 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an asker in some ways, and a bit of a guesser in others. When I do ask, I try to be very clear and sincere, a la what Miko says, that "no" is 100% an acceptable answer and that I will not consider it rude.
posted by scody at 1:02 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, so this is just me and maybe my reaction to it is unusual, but: I'd find the request from a casual friend to take her child to an event to be pushy, no matter how it were phrased. There isn't any way it could be phrased that wouldn't make me feel on the spot. I would probably not want to do it, and I would probably say no, but then I'd probably resent being placed in that position in the first place.

I second the suggestion to simply make it known that you have this need, and if someone really wants to help you, they will offer.
posted by parrot_person at 5:13 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one who feels a bit manipulated when someone says something like, "Oh, I have no one to take him to the party...", waiting for me to offer? I find it so much more obnoxious than a direct question, with reassurance that I can say 'no'.

OP, you mention that you don't want to be caught up in the "'s ok if..."s, but I really think that's the best route. I do like the idea of offering help with your request, and you should probably do so where possible.
posted by sunshinesky at 5:29 AM on March 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

I could be wrong, but this question seems to be motivated by feelings that you might be asking people for favors too often.

I had the same feeling. I was going to say that you should just ask - just me but I don't mind doing favors for people (even frequent favors!) but I cannot stand it when people beat around the bush. It's a pet peeve of mine and possibly passive aggressive of me, but if I feel like someone is trying to get me to offer to do something, I will go out of my way not to offer unless it is a life/death situation. Sometimes I am not aware of doing this until later.

So, that said, figure out what kind of people you are dealing with(askers vs guessers) and approach them in different ways.

I think you should think about what kinds of favors you are asking and whether or not your relationships are balanced. If the relationships are unbalanced (or if the person does stuff for you but never asks for favors in return) then try to reduce the amount of favors you request.

The suggestions to offer more instead of asking less are good too. Just try to do whatever you can to balance out your relationships.
posted by fromageball at 5:29 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

sunshinesky's beat me to it:
When people start with something like, er, you'll probably say no... or: well, I wish I could take my kid to class but I just don't have time next week, it's obvious they're asking me for a favour and - whether this is their intention or not - I feel they are being manipulative.
I think somewhere along these lines: Oh here comes A. Clearly he wants something. Why won't he just tell me what he wants? Ah, right he wants me to do x and wants me to offer to do x for him even though he is asking me for a favour.

If you ask me for something, I will almost always say yes but if you try to frame things so that you get me to volunteer to do something for you, I am much more likely to say no or be less inclined to help you in the future.
Part of it is that though it's great to help people, I am not so enlightened to not want acknowledgement or thanks for it. That comes from returning the favour, simply saying 'thank you,' and definitely respecting me enough to be transparent in what you want from me.
People are not stupid and we are almost always wrong in what we think we conceal from others. We are transparent in our actions and behaviours so it pays to be clear, nice and thankful when asking for a favour rather than passive (because you think the fact I'm a guesser makes any sort of direct question my kryptonite).
That's my rant done.
posted by mkdirusername at 5:44 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Am I the only one who feels a bit manipulated when someone says something like, "Oh, I have no one to take him to the party...", waiting for me to offer? I find it so much more obnoxious than a direct question, with reassurance that I can say 'no'.

Nope, I agree that trying to make someone guess what you want them to do for you is really obnoxious. I'm also not a fan of starting with a "huge hedge": "Hey, I know this is a long shot..." "I know you're busy..." "You'll probably say no to this,"....then why are you asking? It feels like you're trying to set me up to say, "no, of course it's no problem, anything you want", and that's annoying. Just ask! "Would it possible for you to pick up Billy on the way to Jesse's birthday party? I'd love to take him but I have a work meeting. I totally understand if you can't."
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:50 AM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

The way to be a considerate asker is to also be a proactive offeror.

So rather than the advice given above (let people know they can ask you on other occasions), accompany your ask with a firm offer. Most parents are fans of car pools for kid activities, as it gives them a chance to do a favor and also gives them some non-kid time (or one-on-one time with their other kid, equally valuable).

So at the beginning of soccer season, or art camp, or summer break, or whenever, talk to other parents about carpools ("Wednesdays are hard for me but I could take the kids on Thursdays and Saturday mornings, what's your schedule like?") and that way when a one-off occurrence like a birthday comes along, everybody already thinks in terms of carpooling, so it's not a big deal to ask.
posted by headnsouth at 6:40 AM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

People have strong feelings about this, clearly! I don't feel like brating about the bush is manipulative, as it is not hiding anything from anyone, it merely phrases it politely and both parties know what is meant. I find direct asking rude. That's the culture I come from.

So it comes down to "know your audience".

And I think everyone here agrees that offering concrete things proactively is a good thing to do.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:58 AM on March 11, 2012

Beating, dammit.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:59 AM on March 11, 2012

It's a pet peeve of mine and possibly passive aggressive of me, but if I feel like someone is trying to get me to offer to do something, I will go out of my way not to offer unless it is a life/death situation.

I do the same thing. You can usually see this coming a mile away, and it can be a lot of fun to pretend not to understand what is being hinted at.

The real key is mutuality. Are you asking them for favors about as often as they are asking you? Or is it a more one-sided arrangement, where you do most of the asking? If it is feeling one-sided, take steps to make it more equal, and maybe even build that into the ask. "Can you take Junior to the party on Saturday? And I'd be happy to pick up your kids on the way to the pool next week, too."
posted by Forktine at 7:06 AM on March 11, 2012

Requests for help don't seem out of line if the friendship has been two-way.

- Before you need anything from Jane, offer to help her with things before she can ask. Do that whenever it looks like she might need help. Don't view this as saving up favors.

- When you need help from Jane, go ahead and ask directly, without offering to do something in exchange. She probably won't mind at all *if you've been proactively helping her or at least offering help* throughout your friendship.

Making your request a transaction (Will you help me with X? I'll help you with Y) could make it seem like you and Jane aren't actually friends.
posted by ceiba at 7:55 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found that asking more than one person (in a forum where all other parties know who else is being asked, like a group email) increases your chances of any one person saying yes, because it makes it much less of a "Can you do this for me? You're the only person I'm asking" awkward situation.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:58 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totally agree with the advice to assure your friend that a "no" is perfectly okay, and not worry a bit about the outliers that consider it pushy to ask. Because, so what? Indeed, there are some people who mistake requests for demands and either reluctantly comply or get resentful, but you don't need to cater to them.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:12 AM on March 11, 2012

It depends on who your friends are and whether they are askers too. I personally would hate to be asked this but I'm not very favor-doing-y and I never ask anyone else for favors either. Definitely agree with above with 'know your audience'. Also, if it comes up that you are asking for favors a lot, are you actually in the position to reciprocate? I would if I could is not the same thing. /disgruntled non-favor-asker response.
posted by bquarters at 9:16 AM on March 11, 2012

Am I the only one who feels a bit manipulated when someone says something like, "Oh, I have no one to take him to the party...", waiting for me to offer? I find it so much more obnoxious than a direct question, with reassurance that I can say 'no'.

I think this works much better if you phrase it with a built-in sociably acceptable excuse. For example, you directly make your request, but mention that you know it might not be possible because its busy season for them at work/they might not be heading in from the right direction/etc. If you phrase it correctly, they will be able to white lie their way out of your request. I do agree with other posters that you should make sure that you are offering favors to people, because many will not directly ask.
posted by fermezporte at 9:49 AM on March 11, 2012

Part of the reason that Askers throw people off-balance is because a lot of people in our culture are socialized to avoid saying "no." (This hits women disproportionally hard.) Reassuring people that a "no" is ok helps, but it still will make some people feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, hinting that you need a favor without asking does feel manipulative. I have good luck in making my request, but asking people to initiate contact at a later date if they're willing to help. I actually learned this from dating etiquette: offer a compliment, and if she's busy with other people, tell her to find you (in X location, where appropriate) a little later in the night. The birthday party example is a little more complicated, but you can make it work. A surprising number of people will go slightly out of their way if they want to help you.

"By the way, BigMinivanFriend, I have to teach back-to-back underwater basketweaving classes on the day of little Jimmy's birthday party, and I'm trying to find my son a ride with someone else. He always seems to have fun with you and MinivanFriend Jr, and I was wondering if you could manage to take him over to little Jimmy's party for me. No need to answer now - I'm sure you have to take a look at your schedule. Shoot me an email if you have a spot in your back seat, but don't worry about it if you're booked. Either way, I'll see you next week for book club, right?"
posted by catalytics at 9:49 AM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

So many helpful thoughts, both in terms of how to ensure that I'm offering as much as I'm giving, and how to say things (I think I'm resonating more with the direct and simple, but a lot of the phrasing suggestions are very helpful, too.)

One helpful thing is that in the course of reading the responses and thinking about whether I've "overdrawn the favor bank" I've been thinking a little more clearly about what "history" that was playing into my feeling awkward about it. For instance, I've certainly not been over-asky of this particular friend. A lot of my concern about being an over-asker comes from a life-period where I was really needy (and depressed) and certainly weighed on some friends, even to the point where I was called on it by one very close friend. That's water well under the bridge and made-up-for, but it leaves me with an ambivalence. This discussion is helping me put aside the ambivalence and focus on the places where I may be taking too much---and to see each relationship a little more distinctly, rather than picking on myself so generally.

Still I think for today's example I'm going to suggest a favor-exchange, because I actually do know she could probably use a little extra time to herself these days.

Thanks so much. (It's going to be hard to pick a few to "best answer".)
posted by spbmp at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2012

PS. Asker's dream: I once, many years ago, was with my close friend who was upset because he had just had his lab space encroached by another research group. (This was at the MIT Media Lab.) He was pacing back and forth fiercely and wordlessly along a straight line, pivoting 180 degrees at each end of this little stretch, and I was just sitting in a chair, being with him and feeling calm. After a few minutes of this, a craving popped up and I said, "You know, Encroached_upon, I'd really like a great big cookie." His face and his walk didn't change at all, but he didn't turn at the end of the next stretch and just kept going down the hall. In about 20 seconds, he showed up again, handed me, yes, a giant cookie (leftover from some lunch he'd known about) and continued right back into his pacing track again as if nothing had ever happened. :-)
posted by spbmp at 11:38 AM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Be the kind of person who can and does take "no" for an answer.

And be the kind of person who is grateful and reciprocates when someone does you a favor.

I don't think you are that person, but many folks who claim to be "askers" are actually people who simply won't shut up until they hear what they want to hear, or simply don't listen and say things like "oh, when you said you didn't want to drive me to the market, I thought you meant the market on Yuba Street...why didn't you make it clear you didn't want to drive me to any market."

There is nothing wrong with simply asking a person for a favor that you yourself would be happy to do if the situation was reversed. You might want to mention that you understand why she might not be able to as a preface.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:12 AM on March 12, 2012

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