Need someone to lend you a hand, some money, or an ear? If so, you’re going to want to know how best to ask for that favor. Perhaps you’ve figured out your own strategies to extract the desired behavior from others depending on the circumstances. If your arms are full with bags or books, you hope that the person walking through the door in front of you will push or pull it aside and allow you to saunter through. Perhaps you’ve found that the best way to approach a stranger in these circumstances is to stand there and look pathetic. This is a pretty simple favor, and most people will help you out of your plight without even a second thought. On the other hand, if you’re strapped for cash and need your best friend to bail you out, the situation becomes far more complex.
I’ll preface this by saying that the research on favors is surprisingly limited. British psychologist Ena Inesi and co-workers (2012) found that the rich and powerful distrust others who grant them favors. Performing a favor for someone whose status is far above your own will only be looked at cynically by the recipient. However, most of us feel gratified, not jaded, by the performance of a favor on our behalf.
First, we’ll look at several examples of common favors and strategies on how to get them granted. Then, we’ll see the underlying principles that can assure success the next time you need one of these, or another, favor from a stranger, friend, co-worker, or relative.
Assistance from a stranger
We’ll begin with a straightforward situation like the door-holding example above. You could put on that pathetic look, but that doesn’t guarantee a result. Instead, you want to avoid the bystander effect in which people allow others in need to go unnoticed. Social psychologists advise that if you need help from a stranger, you should make eye contact. This can apply for a variety of situations, even those where you’re asking for something more than just a friendly push of the door. You may be trying to change car lanes in a busy street or hoping that a fellow bus passenger will help you pick up your bag. In either case, find that person’s eyes and look right at them. When they’ve helped you, be sure to thank them. A little bit of gratitude will more than make up for the service they’ve provided to you by giving a boost to their well-being for the moment.
Change in plans with a friend
You and a friend made plans weeks ago to go to a concert, but now you find you’re in a conflict and have to cancel. It’s possible your friend won’t mind if you bail, but it’s also likely that you’ll cause considerable inconvenience. Now the friend has to go alone, find a substitute, or cancel altogether. How can you possibly ask for this favor? Here we’ll adopt the first rule of a successful favor: Be honest. Don’t make up a story about someone being sick when the reason you’re canceling is that you got invited to a neighborhood party and you feel that you should go. Of course, your reason for changing your plans shouldn’t just be that something better came along; if that’s the case, you have to wrestle with your conscience about what to do (but still, you shouldn’t lie). Your best bet is to present the problem to your friend as a situation that is difficult for you to resolve and hope that your friend will be able to see things from your perspective. If the plans are for a less fixed type of event (seeing a movie that could be seen on a different night), you might feel less conflicted. Nevertheless, be honest and try to enlist your friend’s problem-solving skills to come up with a solution that will preserve your relationship.
Excused absence from work
You have personal days available to you, but you’re aware of a deadline and so to ask to take one of those days could inconvenience your boss. However, you need that personal day to be able to catch up on needed duties at home. This makes the request a kind of favor. The way you approach it depends on the nature of your organization and your relationship with your boss. Even if you and your boss are best friends, you still need to approach the request in a professional manner and don’t let your guilt get to you. Otherwise, you might come off as too blasé (if you’re trying too hard not to feel guilty) or too apologetic (if you actually are feeling too guilty). Explain in an objective manner the reason for your request and be willing to offer an alternative plan to assist your boss with that impending deadline. This shows that you’re aware of the inconvenience, have given this serious thought, and are working toward the organization’s goals.
Support from a customer service agent
Help from a stranger can also come in the form of help on an 800 phone line or customer support website. Perhaps you’ve bought a set of bath towels from an online supplier and after just two washes, the towels are frayed and discolored. You’d like to return them and get a refund. Seems like a reasonable request, and depending on the site’s policies, this might be easy or a near impossibility. In either case, you’ve got to get on the phone and explain the situation to a customer support representative who can’t see the towels and has to rely on what you say about your predicament. If that site is one that’s a bit stingy with their return policies, you may find yourself having to rely on the good will of that person on the other end of the line. Of course you’re annoyed, and the temptation we all have when talking to customer support representatives is to blame them for the problem. Don’t fall prey to that temptation. The very first thing you say to the agent can color the rest of the conversation. Greet the person in a friendly way, describe the problem as completely as possible and then state what you feel is an acceptable resolution, whatever that might be. If you don’t get the favor granted on the first request, try rewording it, or ask to speak to a supervisor (with whom you are similarly polite). Even in more complicated situations, such as when you need to request a refund for a cancelled trip, the same principles apply. Be friendly, explain the situation objectively, and have a good idea in mind of a fair resolution.
Extra help around the house
You and your roommates, partner, or kids may have an assigned set of chores that you stick to or, if you live alone, jobs that you perform on a regular basis all on your own. However, every once a while, something comes along that will take extra effort or that you can’t do on your own. How will you approach this particular request for a favor? If you’re like many people who hate imposing on the people you love or live with, the chances are you’ll feel uncomfortable at the idea of requesting such a favor. As with the request for an excused absence from a boss, your discomfort could easily lead to excess guilt which, in turn, interferes with your ability to pose the request in a reasonable manner. You might be tempted to carry out the extra work without asking for help, vocally registering your unhappiness and discomfort (i.e. whining) but not openly asking for the favor. This kind of passive-aggressive approach will not only annoy everyone around you but it will also make it unlikely that you’ll get the help you need. Instead, figure out what you can reasonably do on your own and what you can’t. Ask outright for the help with the part you can’t do and make it clear why you can’t. You may be physically too short to reach the corner of the ceiling that’s acquired a few spider webs or not strong enough to carry out a garbage pail full of kitty litter. If necessary, sweeten the deal by offering a trade for something you can more easily do in return.
Help from a co-worker
As with help around the house, help on the job from a co-worker can be a difficult favor to request. You may feel that your co-workers are just as pressured as you are and that your favor will be looked upon as an imposition. Unlike the favor you’re asking for at home, however, you have a professional relationship with this person. You’ll need to maintain those boundaries when you place your request, or both of you will feel uncomfortable and, even worse, you won’t get the favor granted. Don’t preface your request with a lengthy description of the psychological or medical problems that prompt it. That “TMI” (too much information) will only make your co-worker want to back off completely. Also, don’t prey on your co-worker’s guilt or insecurity by pointing out how much more important you are or how much more pressing your problems are, such as by telling your single (and lonely) co-worker how much your own romantic partner is pressuring you to take more time off. Before you make your request, figure out a calm and reasonable way to ask for it and plan something that you can reciprocate with that’s consistent with the boundaries of your relationship (i.e. don’t buy flowers if it might be construed as a romantic overture).
Something extra from someone you’re paying
You may be out for dinner and realize that there’s no way you can finish the generous helpings on your plate. As you contemplate leaving it all behind vs. having some tasty leftovers the next day, the thought strikes you that you could ask your waitperson to package it up in a doggy bag to take home. However, this is an extra service, not included in the cost of the meal, and you’re just not sure what to do. Alternatively, you’re getting your car serviced, and really would like to have the messy remnants of the past few months vacuumed out of the floor but can’t afford a detailing job. There are many more examples of these situations, but they all share the feature of your hoping and/or needing something done that goes beyond the bounds of the original service you paid for. Should you ask or just assume it’s out of the question? You’ll never get a favor done for you if you don’t ask. Go ahead and make your request with as little entitlement as possible in your plea. Be prepared to be told “no,” or to pay a little extra, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the friendly help you’re offered in return.
Now that you’ve seen these examples, let’s think about the underlying principles. I’ve whittled them down to just four:
1. Be honest and straightforward. When you’re asking for something from someone, don’t make up a ludicrous set of reasons that exaggerate the extent of the problem or just aren’t true. Explain your predicament, or make your predicament known in a direct fashion. You don’t need to pull someone’s heartstrings to get them to go the extra mile for you. If you’re clear about what you need, you’ll find that most reasonable people can empathize with you and be willing to fulfill that request.
2. Don’t feel overly guilty or entitled. If you feel guilty about asking for help, you run the risk of failing to make your needs clear. On the other hand, if you simply expect those around you to bow and scrape whenever you need a hand, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
3. Recognize that asking for help can serve as a favor to someone else. Other people may honestly feel better about themselves if they think they can perform a useful service to their friends, relatives, and co-workers. They’ll be especially likely to feel this way if you genuinely show your appreciation.
4. Be ready to reciprocate. Equity theory says that each social act you perform in a relationship should be balanced by one that the other person will perform for you. When it comes to favors, I don’t think it’s appropriate to expect a one-for-one exact match. However, over time, if you want someone else to grant you a favor, it’s more likely to happen if you’ve been similarly gracious in the past. The “payback” for a favor granted might or might not equal the “pay forward” of one you request. However, you should have in mind something that you can do in return the next time you’re asked to provide a helping hand.
Favors can make the social wheels of all our relationships run more smoothly. By knowing how to ask for them, we can make sure that those social wheels keep on spinning.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Inesi, M., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others' generous acts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 795-803. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.01.008