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The Right Way to Ask

Master the art of asking for what you want, and you’re a lot more likely to get the things that really matter.

What a relief it would be if, sometimes, other people could read your mind — say, if your boss recognized the hard work you’ve been doing lately and spontaneously gave you a raise. If your spouse noticed how tired you’ve been and, unasked, chipped in more with household chores. If, without coercion or fuss, the kids gathered around the table for family dinner.

But the truth is this: You probably have a much better idea than anyone else about what you want and need at a given time. And it’s probably not in anyone’s best interest for you to simply hope that others will guess.

That’s why, when something matters to you, or when you need help or support, it’s your responsibility to ask for it. “You have to be the most important person in your life,” says Stephen Pollan, coach, consultant and author of Lifescripts: What to Say to Get What You Want in 101 of Life’s Toughest Situations (Wiley Publishing, 2004). “No one can be a bigger advocate for you than yourself.”

Yet, for a variety of reasons, finding the most effective language for phrasing requests can be challenging. We tend to hem and haw and add qualifications and excuses until we’ve heaped so much ambivalence onto our requests that they’re no longer effective. And then we may start to nag.

But with the right phrases and a little practice, we can make requests and offer our ideas more effectively. The payoffs are worth the work. Being willing and able to ask for what you want is a core component of living an authentic, rewarding life — one that aligns with your top values and priorities.

Preparation

To get what you want, you must be willing to ask for it, and that can feel scary — at least at first. “You take a risk when you open up and express what you really mean and allow yourself to be vulnerable,” writes Meryl Runion, in How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say and Get What You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

But the more we ask, says Pollan, the easier it gets. As with most endeavors, practice helps us overcome our fears and improve our performance. Also, when we’ve asked for what we want a few times and received positive reactions, we’re less afraid of the potential negative consequences (for example, getting a “no,” or having people think we’re too aggressive or overbearing).

Before any words leave your mouth, though, it’s important to get clear about what you’re asking for, why you’re asking and what outcome you hope to achieve.

It can help to take a little time to write down your thoughts, everything from arguments supporting your position to considerations about your audience. (Is it your sensitive spouse? Your righteous coworker? Your overbearing father-in-law?)

What you write will help you chart the big picture behind your request — what values are in play for you, what consequences are at stake, and which supporting arguments will help or hinder your case.

Next, whittle down what you’ll actually say to the most essential components. Otherwise, you run the risk of diluting your message and weakening your argument with too many words. Practice your pared-down message with a friend who can offer feedback.
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Finally, visualize a detailed scene where you approach your audience in an appropriate environment, make the request and receive a receptive response. This can go a long way toward empowering you to deliver your request with confidence.

Time to Ask

When you’re ready to make a request, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be concise and direct. State your pitch and rationale in the first 30 seconds. More words water down your message, argues Runion, as do fillers such as “um” and “well.” Also, avoid prefacing your request with qualifications or excuses. Phrases like “I could be wrong, but” and “Sorry to bother you” immediately discount what you’re about to ask. Adding “you know?” and “does that make sense?” makes you sound uncertain. And avoid being vague, Runion adds. Instead of saying, “I could use some help around here,” try “Would you be willing to help me with…?” Direct language leaves less chance for misinterpretation.
  • Own your words. Use “I” statements, such as “I believe,” “I’d like,” “I will,” “I am” and “I have,” says Cat Thompson, a St. Paul, Minn.–based life coach. Other people can’t argue with “I” statements because they express how you feel. People might not like or agree with what you say, adds Runion, but they’re not you, so they have no basis for disagreement. Also, use “I” statements to propose desired solutions, writes Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich (Crown Publishing, 2007). “Stop asking for opinions and start proposing solutions,” he suggests. Use lines like “I propose…” or “I suggest that _______. What do you think?” or “Let’s try _______, and then try something else if that doesn’t work.”
  • Tend to tone and posture. When requesting, use the tone of voice you’d have when asking someone to pass the butter, suggests Runion. A matter-of-fact tone helps keep people from becoming defensive and encourages them to focus on the specifics of the message rather than the emotion in the delivery. Also be conscious of your body language: Lengthen your neck and keep your shoulders back, chest open, to project assertiveness. Maintain eye contact and keep your arms uncrossed to convey engagement and openness. Good body language can transform your message, says Thompson.
  • Listen and respect concerns. If the listener gives vague refusals, ask, “What is your main concern?” When she answers, acknowledge the validity of her point, and counter with any steps you’re willing to take to handle her reservations, says Ferriss. Also, consider suggesting a trial period; people become more comfortable when they realize something is reversible. If you’re still not getting a yes, Ferriss notes, try saying, “What would I need to do to [achieve desired outcome]?” “Under what circumstances would you [support desired outcome]?”
  • Be enthusiastic — and persistent. “The overall attitude should be one of exuberance,” says Pollan. “Say, ‘I’m very excited about this. I want to know what you think of my plan because I’m going to need your support to do this.’ Exuberance is very catching, and, very often, the person will return the exuberance.” If it doesn’t work, come back later with another strategy. “You’ll probably get what you ask for,” says Pollan. “And if you don’t get it the first time, ask again.”

Sarah Moran is a Minneapolis-based health writer.

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