Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


2 Things You Need to Know Before Asking Anyone for Anything

People want to be helpful. But you have to know how to ask.

Source: fotorobs/Shutterstock

Whether it is a job search, pitching business plans to investors, or asking foundations to fund your nonprofit, life provides you with so many opportunities for rejection! This post focuses on the dynamics of rejection and offers two tips you can use to master those dynamics.

Must You Always Think About Yourself?

One of the problems in managing rejection is that we become so self-absorbed, because of the negative emotions involved in getting rejected, that we fail to give sufficient weight to what is going on in the minds of those who are rejecting us.

But having this perspective can be useful.

Daniel Newark, Francis Flynn, and Vanessa Bohns of Stanford University and the University of Waterloo in Canada had study participants stop strangers on the Stanford campus and request two favors: Fill out a short survey; and then, regardless of how the stranger responded to the first request, drop off a letter at a nearby post office.

These were small requests to be sure, but they did involve inconvenience.

Before sending participants out on campus, the researchers asked them to guess what would happen. The help seekers expected that people who refused the first request would then be much less likely to say yes to the second request.

They were wrong.

The percentage of people saying yes to the second request was higher than the percentage of people saying yes to the first request. In other words, saying no actually made people more likely to say yes to the second request.

Why would this happen?

Start Thinking About the Person You Are Asking

Help seekers often fail to appreciate what is going on in the minds of those being asked for help. Having rejected the first request for help, it can be more guilt-inducing for them to say no a second time. (A follow-up study by the researchers confirmed that potential helpers tend to agree to the second favor at rates higher than those for the first.)

Help seekers fail to appreciate the discomfort of the person they are asking for help. And so they read too much into the first no. They draw the conclusion that they are dealing with a person who does not wish to be helpful to them in general. But they fail to appreciate how many people want to be perceived by others as helpful.

One practical implication of this research is to have a fall-back for rejection. For example, if a job candidate is informed that she is not going to be a finalist, instead of mumbling, "Thank you for considering me,” she might ask if the manager knows of any other company officials with whom she might network for more insights into the job market. Based on the research cited, this would help the person doing the rejecting to feel more positive about him/herself.

If a wealthy individual rejects the opportunity to be a Patron of a charity event for $20,000, what about being a Contributor for $1,500?

When “No” Means “Yes"

Several years ago, one of the authors (Larry) was approached by a Chinese professor about traveling to his university to give a talk at a conference. The “ask” went something like this:

“It would be so helpful if you could come to my university for a conference I am putting on this summer. But I know you are so busy. And we cannot afford to pay for your plane trip. And the plane trip is so expensive. We could house you and feed you on campus, however. But I know you would not feel comfortable living in a student dormitory.”

Larry responded, “No, I have time. And I can afford to pay my own way. And I would enjoy living in a student dorm. It sounds like fun!”

Larry later observed that the Chinese professor’s “ask” was very different from how a similar request might have been made in the United States. Here, it would be expressed as a positive:

“We would love to have you attend our conference and give a talk. Can you make it even though we can’t pay the air fare?”

The Chinese professor's “negative” ask was a deliberate face-saving maneuver. By verbalizing all the objections, a “no” becomes a “yes” and a “yes” becomes a “no.” Thus if Larry was to reject the opportunity, his response would have been, “You are correct. I do not have the time this summer to travel to China. But thank you for asking.”

In the case of a donation, turning a negative into a positive might be along these lines:

“I am seeking money for a nonprofit whose mission I very much support. But I am sure that you do not have the time or interest in supporting this mission. You are so busy and have other causes that you support…”

The Dynamics of Rejection

Regardless of your role, success requires asking others for assistance. The study cited in this piece suggests that we get so engrossed in our own concerns with rejection we forget the impact of the ask on the person we are interacting with. People like to be perceived in a positive way. Give them the opportunity to be positive. Here are two ways to do it:

  1. Have a second request ready in the event your primary request is rejected. Thus if the angel investor rejects your business plan, you might ask for introductions to other angels.
  2. Consider our Chinese colleague’s way of asking for a favor. By phrasing all the objections up front, it gives the other person an opportunity to be positive. If you are to be rejected, the rejection will be positive: “I am sorry but you are correct….” This helps you—and the person being asked for a favor—to save face.


Newark, D. A., Flynn, F. J., & Bohns, V. K. (2013). Once Bitten, Twice Shy The Effect of a Past Refusal on Expectations of Future Compliance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550613490967.

More from Laurence J. Stybel
More from Psychology Today