Three Reasons Why You Should Probably Ask!


By Steve Martin, CMCT


Benjamin Franklin famously once attempted to win favor with a political adversary by writing him a letter requesting to borrow a rare and valuable book that he owned. A short time afterwards, Franklin reported that this usually stubborn, often hostile gentleman sought him out in the House and spoke to him for the first time. It seems Franklin recognized that, in certain circumstances, asking for assistance can be an effective means of reducing conflict.

But what if you’re not Benjamin Franklin? What about us ordinary folks who ponder the pros and cons of soliciting assistance on a project from an icy-faced colleague, or requesting the help of a grumpy neighbor? Moreover, what about situations where there is no conflict, yet the thought of asking still raises anxiety levels? For example, think about that cute guy or girl on the bus that you admire from a distance but have yet to pluck up the courage to ask out on a date.

Asking can be daunting. Fortunately reassurance is at hand—and from an unlikely source.

If you are the kind of person who views asking as a risky business—one laced with the fear of rejection, embarrassment and a bruised ego—then here are three reasons why you might want to think again, each informed from scientific studies.

Reason #1: People are more likely to say ‘yes’ than you think.


The respected psychologists Frank Flynn and Vanessa Bohns have conducted numerous studies looking at many different requests; from soliciting charitable donations to borrowing a stranger’s phone to asking people to fill out lengthy questionnaires. In each case study participants are first asked to predict the likelihood that the people they ask will agree to their request. And in most cases they underestimate their success rate—by around half.

So why do we typically underestimate the likelihood that people will say ‘yes’ to our requests? One reason is that requesters tend to focus attention on the costs that others will incur if they do say ‘yes’ to them (such as their time and resources). In contrast, potential helpers are much more likely to pay attention to the social costs of saying ‘no’.

A simple truth emerges from Flynn and Bohns’ research. People are far more likely to say ‘yes’ than people expect. The result? Potential business opportunities are lost. Prospective clients go un-contacted. And networking opportunities wasted.

Reason #2:  Asking doesn’t weaken your power, it boosts it.

We’ve all likely been a passenger in a car driven by someone who is lost but refuses to stop for directions in the mistaken belief that asking is a sign of weakness. But often a temporary display of weakness (in this case admitting that you’re lost) will be the route to finding yourself in a much more powerful position. In the case of the lost driver, asking for directions from a local resident or gas attendant immediately grants the driver access to crucial help and assistance that returns him to a position of power.

So rather than being seen as limiting, it’s far better to view asking for help as empowering. This should serve as comforting, especially to those in difficult situations—for example folks in financial difficulties or the victims of bullying— who may feel that they will be stigmatized for seeking assistance.

Even the student who raises a hand and asks what she believes might be a silly question increases her power in two ways. First, she will likely gain the extra information needed to allow for an important learning. Second, she’ll also gain the thanks of her classmates, many of whom are also stuck, but who failed to ask. 

When it comes to asking, it turns out that making a small change—in this case adding just six words as a prequel to your request—can lead to a big difference in whether you will be assisted. In one study (also conducted by Flynn & Bohns) 57% of people approached at a busy subway station and asked to complete a questionnaire were willing to do so. But when the request was preceded by the words “Can you do me a favor?” before the same request was made, 84% complied.

It was the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche who observed, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” When it comes to asking it seems he may have a point.



Reason #3. You’ll actually feel better if you ask. 

In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Thomas Giloviqh and Victoria Medvec show evidence for a temporal pattern to the regret of not taking action. Simply put, any pain and embarrassment that may be felt as a result of taking an action or being refused a request tends to be acute and temporary. Like a bee-sting, it smarts for a few minutes but then rapidly subsides.

In contrast, the regret that one feels for inaction is entirely different. Unlike a momentary pinprick, this pain tends to be more of a dull ache that hangs around for longer. Like a broken record repeatedly playing ‘if only …’ in your head.

On reflection then, and with so many reassuring check marks on the plus side of asking, maybe the time has come to reach out to that icy-faced colleague or grumpy neighbor.

And be sure to let us know how tomorrow morning’s bus journey goes too!


  • Greg

    Reminds me of old study I read in INFLUENCE that making request using word BECAUSE followed by a reason increased compliance.

  • Bill Spiva

    I was thinking the same thing. Because with compliance. Also the jump after they said yes has a lot to do with consistency and commitment. Steve, I wonder what the results would be if you asked them, may I ask you a question, then before asking them to take the survey informed them the length of the survey in the ask. “Would you be willing to take a one minute survey?” Or, “would you be willing to take a 10 minute survey?” I would be interested to know at what minute the scale would tip and people would be disarmed by the “can I ask you a question?” Would be disarmed because the person values their time. Anyway, thanks!

    • Steve_Martin

      Good question Greg. I have to admit I don’t recall seeing any research that specifically looks that combining the ‘can you do me a favor’ approach with two differently timed requests. However I can report that in the Flynn & Bohns studies if the requester paused after asking ‘can you do me a favor’ to allow the person to respond with a ‘yes’, that activated the consistency principle resulting in close to 100% compliance.
      With regard to the ordering of a 1 minute request or a 10 minute request there is clear evidence that you will likely be more successful if you ask for the larger 10 minute request first for two reasons. 1) They may say yes the larger request and 2) even if they do not, then the likelihood of a yes to the 1 minute request is increased because of the concession you have provided.
      Thanks for reading the IIR.
      Steve M.

      • Bill Spiva

        If you weren’t talking to me but to Greg, sorry. It make clear sense that you go from 10 to 1 concession would kick in. I was reading the jump by asking, “can I ask you a question?” Is disarmed when? I would think the commitment level and obligation would change and the numbers would change between two and three minutes. That’s just my guess though. People would value there time again, trumping the “can I ask you a question first.” That’s what I was commenting on. Regardless, I learned from a Student of Dr.C in college about 20 years ago. I had no idea what persuasion or Diffusion of Innovations was and he was on fire with it. People alway said to me that I was manipulative. They never said that, but things like you could sell ice to an Eskimo. So, I was born with this passion and then learned its a science. My professor was amazing and for 15 years I’ve been trying to keep up! I just love social influence and the wor you’re doing, Steve. I just wish I could use it for a full time career. But I wanted to thank you for all that you all still do. Let me know if you ever need a hand in the Midwest. Your reply said Greg, if you were talking to him, then disregard this. Thanks again

    • David

      I think the compliance in filling out the survey would not be affected by the priming question. This is because the requestee has satisfied his/her obligation once they answer your question, whether it be in the affirmative or negative. The requestee committed only to allowing you to ask a question – not to perform a task. It might also come across as underhanded because the true intention was dressed up as a mere question, both of which come at significantly different costs.

  • Bill

    Steve, can you do me a favor? I’m wondering if you can point me to a source for more in-depth social scientific research specifically in the area of men asking women out on dates, and approaches that are more likely to result in a yes? Are there any good research studies, or books, on this specific topic? Many thanks, Bill

    • David

      As far as I know, there’s isn’t all that much academia re; approaches, except for asking for straight sex (which was not effective at all when men asked, but highly effective when women asked). There is a distinction b/w compliance re: a simple task and compliance re: going out on a date b/c the 2 tasks come at significantly different costs.

  • Warren Whitlock

    I learned in a sales training course in 1981 the power of questions. I had read that putting a “because” line on anything got more compliance (“can I cut in line? My boss has the flu”), but didn’t know that a statement before the question was even better.

    Asking for a favor works, though some people (I’m one) think it’s a red flag and put up defenses. Instead, we learned “Can I ask? [short pause, then continue]” had tested better.

    I’ve used it thousands of times now, taught it to hundreds, and while I vary it a bit from time to time, find it universally disarms people and gives me an extra couple of seconds to get my brain to mouth connection started.

    Second favorite: “Will you look at this with an open mind?” Everyone thinks they have an open mind.

  • Ben Stich

    Love the post, Steve. I am a family and divorce mediator and I have seen this dynamic play out in high conflict mediation sessions. Showing vulnerability — and the human side — can be quite disarming and open the door for improved communication and compassion.

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