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How to Ask for Favors That People Want to Fulfill

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” — Vito Corleone

We all have needed help at some point during our lives, and we have all offered help to someone who needed it. Moving homes. Passing the salt. Offering a friendly shoulder to your best friend after her break-up, or babysitting the neighbor’s child.

We have all been there: asking for favors and doing them for others is one of the most basic tools we use to live and thrive in society.

So how come it can be so freaking hard?

The first reason is probably our debilitating fear of rejection. Sometimes it’s not even about the consequences of not receiving the favor itself, but merely having to face the fact that we have been told “no”.

Then there’s the guilt. Often when asking someone for something we feel shame and reluctance because we don’t want to “be a burden” (“How dare I even ask her this?”). We feel ashamed because somehow along our lives we have swallowed the belief that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness, and we don’t want to be in anyone’s debt.

As we approach the art of making requests from such a flawed and unhealthy mindset, it’s only natural that our favors are often met with reluctance, at a cost, or not met at all.

Luckily, there is a simple solution for this. Just like it happens with every situation involving an interaction between two or more human beings, exchanging favors is all about clear communication.

Communication — verbal or nonverbal — helps us exchange information, make decisions and form opinions, and it directly affects the way we feel towards other people and situations. If we can align our thoughts, feelings and actions and communicate them clearly when reaching out to others for help, then they will be much more open and willing to provide it.

So how can we put this into practice?

Make Requests, Not Demands

This image is a reference to the movie “The Godfather”. If you don’t get it, don’t worry: it’s just me trying to be funny, and it won’t affect your understanding of this article.

Often many of us think we’re making requests when in truth we are making demands.

There is a very easy way to distinguish between a request and a demand: declining a request has no consequences; declining a demand has. That’s why very often you can only tell a demand from a request once it gets rejected, which is when you are able to see the reaction of the person who made it.

Let’s take a look at these examples:

Demand

Rick: Hey Sally, could you meet me somewhere today and help me with that work assignment I mentioned earlier?
Sally: Hey Rick. Sorry, I won’t be able to help you today. I am feeling quite tired and I need some rest. Perhaps you can find someone else to help you?
Rick: No, no one else wants to help me… Come on, it’s not going to be tiring at all — I just need a few minutes of your time. I need to have it ready by tomorrow, otherwise my boss will go crazy…
Sally: I’m really sorry, but today won’t work for me.
Rick: I see. It’s always the same with you — I can never count on your help.

Request

Rick: Hey Sally, could you meet me somewhere today and help me with that work assignment I mentioned earlier?
Sally: Hey Rick. Sorry, I won’t be able to help you today. I am feeling quite tired and I need some rest. Perhaps you can find someone else to help you?
Rick: Thank you for being honest — I see that it’s important for you to take care of yourself right now, and I totally understand that. I don’t know of anyone else I can ask, but I will look for another solution.

When you demand something of someone, they can sense it straight away. Although a request and a demand might sound exactly the same at first, it’s usually easy to tell one another just by observing the person’s tone of voice, body language, and other hints such as potential tension or a slightly aggressive way of speaking. The attitude gives you away from the start: if you are inflexible and unaware of the other person’s needs, they will sense it before you even speak a word.

So how to avoid falling into the trap of making demands instead of requests?

The simplest way is to offer the person an escape clause straight from the beginning.

Rick: Hey Sally, could you meet me somewhere today and help me with that work assignment I mentioned earlier? It would be really helpful, but I totally understand if you don’t have the time, so feel free to say no.

Note: make sure that the escape clause is an honest display of understanding and responsibility, and not a demand in disguise (here is an example of a demand in the shape of emotional blackmail: “I understand if you don’t have the time, that’s OK. I am used to being left alone anyway, I will just go and get fired.”)

When you make it clear that your request is free of consequences, the other person will feel that they have the freedom to choose; therefore, it will feel empowering for them to help you, instead of it seeming like an obligation. And even if they decline, the fact that you responded with acceptance and compassion will make it much more likely for them to want to help you in the future.

Be Open About Your Feelings

Ever experienced the sensation that no matter what you say in a conversation, all your words seem fake and empty? Or perhaps you got that impression from other people — that awkward feeling that something about them is slightly off, something that causes you to feel annoyance, disbelief, or even repulsion towards them.

Much of that comes from a struggle to be authentic. In practical terms, that is an incoherence between the way we feel, and the things we say and do. If I feel confused and lost but pretend to be absolutely sure of what I am saying, you will see the discrepancies between my words, my body language, and that unspoken weirdness growing between the two of us.

The same thing happens when we ask others for their help. If I feel anxious but pretend to feel confident, there will be a tone of falseness in my confidence, and it will come out as awkwardness. So why not just assume an authentic state of mind?

If you feel nervous about asking your friend to go with you to the doctor’s appointment, you can tell her that you feel nervous.

Tell her that you are afraid of what the doctor might say. Tell her that you feel grateful for her help, and also safe to know that you don’t have to go alone. Tell her that you feel a bit shy to share all of this with her, but that deep down you mostly feel relief, and you are happy for her to share her feelings with you too.

Authenticity is one of the most requested and admired traits in today’s society — a green oasis in the midst of a desert made of masks, pressure to conform, and fear of failure. The more authentic you are, the more drawn to you people will feel, and the more open they will be to help you.

Think of your request as a gift

If you are like me, you have probably found yourself asking your co-worker for change for the bus with such an apologetic tone that it made it sound like you were asking him to kill his grandmother.

We often think of our requests as far more inconvenient than what they are in reality. Most of us even go out of our way to help others, but God forbid to bother any gentle soul with our ridiculous caprices.

Of course I’m exaggerating, but you get my point. You know that asking for help is healthy, but you still can’t avoid the guilt you feel. So how can you fix this?

It’s simple. All you need to do is change your perspective.

“The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” ― Gordon B. Hinckley, “Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes”

I want you to bring yourself back to the last time when you felt that deep pleasure of helping someone. That deep accomplishment and perfect connection with everything around you; that sense of fulfilled purpose and pure energy flowing through our whole body.

So why not imagine your requests to others as opportunities for them to feel the same way?

Whenever you ask someone for a favor, think of your favor as a gift: it’s a chance for the two of you to connect, to give and receive, to help and be helped. By asking something from them, you are making yourself vulnerable, and that’s a great gift. If you know that, they will know that, and they will be infected with your joy and your certainty that what you are asking for is absolutely worth doing.

Note: Seeing your request as a gift is not the same as forcing smiles and positivity when you actually feel like crying on the couch and shoving a whole bucket of Ben and Jerry’s down your throat. It’s not about feeling one way and acting another: it’s about shifting your own perspective over the nature of your request, and learning how to tackle the source of your feelings themselves.

Change the way you see rejection

Ah, rejection… the boogeyman from our childhood, that still hides in our mental closet to jump out when we meet an attractive stranger or pitch our work to a new client.

When asking for favors, one of the things that hold us back the most is the fear of hearing “no” as answer.

There are two ways to go about this. I have a personal preference for the second one.

1. Get over it. You are not a child, and your mother is not about to leave you alone in a dark alley. Whatever happens, you will be fine. Think about it this way: “If I get rejected, what’s the worse that can happen?” When you have your worst case scenario, prepare to take measures if necessary.

2. Observe the fear without judgement. Tell yourself that whatever it is you are feeling, it’s valid, and it’s healthy. You will feel this many times throughout your whole life, therefore there is no point in avoiding it. Just embrace it without letting yourself be consumed by it, and be present.


“To refuse graciously is to confer a favour” — Publilius Syrus

What I mean with the title of this article is not that these things will teach you how to force people into doing things they don’t want to do. If you are not a head chief of the Sicilian Mafia, you probably want people to feel comfortable enough to refuse your offers.

And they will. Sometimes you will get a “no” because the timing isn’t right, because there are other priorities, or simply because there is another opportunity awaiting you after the next turn on your journey. On the other hand, if you are aligned and balanced and able to communicate that to others, then good will and compassion will most likely flow freely towards your way.

If you take all these things into account when asking someone for a favor, your request will evolve into something much bigger. It will become an opportunity for collaboration, for the free expression of kindness and vulnerability, for the practice of tolerance, patience, and emotional responsibility. The act of asking will become an exercise of personal development in itself, and you can only expect but to grow.