A major theme of the Best of Both Worlds podcast is that martyrdom is overrated. Part of avoiding martyrdom is asking for help from various people at work and at home. It turns out there’s a whole slew of research out there on asking for help, and what works and what doesn’t.
So this week we have Heidi Grant on the program, talking about this topic. Heidi Grant is the author of the new book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. She holds a doctorate in social psychology, is the Senior Scientist for the NeuroLeadership Institute, and serves as Associate Director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. She also has two kids. Some of the tidbits she shared with Sarah and me:
Asking for help is hard. People are very, very reticent to ask, particularly in person. In her book, she talks about experiments where people would ask others to give them their seats on the subway. The people assigned to ask would often become so nervous and felt so ill about the whole thing that they probably could have used those seats! And yet…
People are highly likely to say yes. When asked to do something individually, people really do not want to say no. If they have to say no for some reason, they will generally go out of their way to help you the next time. Grant talks about asking for a blurb for a previous book from some famous gentleman, who turned her down. Her editor insisted she try him again for a subsequent book, which Grant thought was just asking for punishment, but not only did this guy agree, he gave her a blurb that was so over-the-top gushing she found it almost embarrassing. People like to think of themselves as helpful, and not helping introduces such cognitive dissonance that we really want to put things right soon.
Asking for help (nicely) makes people like you more, not less. We assume that asking for help makes us seem weak and unlikeable, but human nature doesn’t work that way. Grant recounts a great anecdote about Benjamin Franklin. One of the leading lights of Philadelphia was opposed to Franklin’s candidacy for something. So Franklin wrote the gentleman a note asking if he could borrow a rare book from his library that he said he’d long wanted to see. The man agreed (why not? It was a relatively simple thing to do) but the net result was that the man felt much more friendly toward Franklin. When Franklin thanked him profusely for lending him the book, he stopped opposing Franklin’s candidacy. Again, it’s the cognitive dissonance thing. It’s hard to hold in the brain simultaneously that you are helping a person and you dislike them, and it’s easier to decide to like them than to not help.
Ask individually. When people are asked to do things in a group email they figure someone else will do it. When you ask individually, people feel they need to answer. Individual emails or phone calls are effective, but in person is even better. Sarah mentions that when she’s trying to trade a call schedule, she definitely goes into the person’s office to ask! I emailed 100 influencers individually to ask them to mention my new book, Off the Clock, on social media. The vast majority did.
Frame the request right. Don’t minimize it! Sometimes in our quest for help we try to downplay the favor so it will seem easier to do, but that’s the wrong approach. Instead, play up just how helpful it will be. Appealing to people’s identities is also smart. Research finds that when people have any sort of connection to the person asking for help — even if it’s ridiculous — they’re more likely to comply. Another way to appeal to identity, especially with children: ask them to “be a helper” rather than just ask them to help. I’ve taken this to heart and have praised my children for being such big helpers when they take on tasks.
Follow up. Grant mentions that an amazing number of people who’ve asked her for letters of recommendation over the years have not followed up to say what the result was. Come on, people! Nothing makes people want to be helpful in the future like finding out that their help really changed someone’s world now.
Anyway, it doesn’t always work — the Q&A is about a request I made for help that was not given in the way I wished — but there’s a lot of food for thought in here. Please give it a listen!
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