By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
In Funny Girl, the 1960s Broadway musical and then the movie of the same name, the world was introduced to a twenty-something then-mostly-unknown Barbara Streisand. In both, she sang People, a melodic show-stopper that is now forever linked to her. The first lines are as iconic as she is. (Sing or hum along as you read them if you want!)
People. People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world…
The lyricists were right: when you understand that none of us are going to get happily through this world without needing other people, you are one of the “…luckiest people in the world.”
We’re all going to need the help of others at points in our lives, and because of that, within respectful boundaries, it’s great to give favors. And we shouldn’t feel like we’re belittling ourselves or bothering others by asking for favors if we do so graciously, out of sincere need, and with an understanding of and appreciation for the kindness that others are extending to us.
The Three Essentials of Asking for a Favor
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the best way to ask for a favor follows nearly the same route as Sir Winston Churchill’s famous advice about giving a toast: “Begin. Be brief. Be seated.”
A lot of folks think they should soften the atmosphere by engaging in small talk and compliments before asking, but the opposite is true. People are busy, so it’s best to get to the point. Plus, if you add the favor as a PS to your conversation, it makes it seem as if the conversation was all a ruse for the favor.
In her article in Harvard Business Review, author Jodi Glickman shares the three keys of asking for a favor:
- Set the stage.
- Give a reason.
- Provide an escape clause.
Allow me to share the how-to and why of each of them with you.
The Best Ways to Ask for a Favor (The 3-Step Formula)
1. Begin your request by making your intentions clear: You want there to be no confusion on the part of those whom you’re asking for a favor. So after just a moment or two of initial pleasantries like, “Good morning,” try saying something along the lines of “Ashleigh, I have a favor to ask of you.”
You now have her full attention, and your intentions are clear.
You’ve also given her a heads-up (everyone appreciates those) for what you’re about to do in case she wants to stop you before you even ask. That’s unlikely. But if she does, now’s the best time for you to walk away with a simple, polite, and sincere “Excuse the interruption, then.”
Who knows, maybe she’s having the worst morning ever. Give her the benefit of the doubt, and move on. It’s not worth hurt feelings. You were going to be honest with her in your request. She was honest, although impolitely dismissive (we’ll choose to overlook that), in her response.
2. Next, explain exactly what the favor is, what it will require of those being asked, and why you chose to ask them. Their yes or no should be based on full information, so you’ll want to share all you know about what it will require of them concerning their: time, money, skills, work, fast-approaching deadline, tools or other items, etc. You don’t want them to run into any surprises while fulfilling your favor.
Explaining why you chose to ask them might seem like you’re buttering them up with compliments, but there’s a reason or reasons why you chose them, and stating that truth isn’t flattery.
3. Lastly, always offer them an easy escape; otherwise, you’re making a demand and not requesting a favor. “I understand that you’re busy, especially now with the extra demands on you as the chair of the fundraiser. If I’m asking something you’re not comfortable doing, I understand.”
1…2…3… Begin. Be brief. Be seated. Short and sweet. However you’d like to think of it, simply state your favor, share its supporting details, why you chose who you did, give an easy, gracious out, and then be still and wait for the answer.
15 Important Grace Notes To Know for The Best Ways to Ask for a Favor
1. Share with them the reason you’re asking for the favor. The more information they have about why you’re in need of the favor, the more likely they are to help you.
2. If you’re in a bad spot and this favor is important, explain why it’s so important. Most people are happy to help someone in need. In fact, people like being a hero. Let them know they’ll be your hero.
3. Always be honest about all the reasons. (But we shouldn’t have to mention that on an etiquette blog.)
4. Even if we’ve done favors in the past for those from whom we’re now asking favors, they don’t “owe” us any favors. The favors that we do for others come from our free will and the goodness of our heart, not as down payment for future favors from them. It’s easy to feel entitled. It’s easy to think that they owe us (and maybe they kinda do), but actually, they don’t literally owe us. Don’t burn bridges over this. Ask nicely, and if the answer is no, walk away with a smile and your dignity.
5. As you explain your need for the favor, ask whether they have any suggestions for you. In this way, they become invested in solving the situation with you. They might see that their help is the best solution and more eagerly say yes, or they might actually have an idea you never thought of which will provide the help you need. Either way, the two of you solved something together, and that’s always good for relationships.
6. Do everything that you can on your own in regards to what you’re asking, and share what steps you’ve taken with them as you ask for the favor. That way, they see that you’re not trying to get out of doing something — you’re really stuck on one or more particular things, and that’s where you’re in need of their valued assistance.
“I’ve talked to the other moms I know in Everly’s preschool co-op, and even called the school and my church office asking if they know of anyone to watch her on the three Thursdays when I have training until 10 PM for my new job. No one is available for Thursdays. Plus, I don’t know those people. You can understand the worry I’ll have during training if I don’t find a mom like you who I completely trust to watch her.”
(In this case you’ve also laid out for her what the scenario will look like without her help. This isn’t begging. It’s giving her the full picture and all the information that you have for her to help you come up with another solution if her answer is no.)
7. Even though you have a first-choice person to ask, have a backup person or two in mind. If the first person says no, you don’t want to be caught without anywhere else to turn. Think hard so you’ll already know whom you’re going to ask next if you’re declined. It will help you process the first person’s no better, and you won’t feel as vulnerable in the situation.
8. Ask in a private setting. A favor is a private matter. Ask in a private setting so both of you feel comfortable sharing details.
9. Whenever possible, ask for favors from others in person. This isn’t so you can look pitiful or desperate and try to win them over. It’s so you can read their body language to better understand how you’re coming across, and you can offer immediate answers to any questions, and they can see the appreciation in your eyes and smile if (when!) they say yes. Plus, your verbal thank you is immediate and in person.
10. The next best thing to asking in person is to ask over the phone. You lose all the body language clues; however, you keep the clues gained through tone of voice, silent pauses, and such. You also retain immediate conversational give-and-take, and they can hear your immediate thank you.
11. Let them know you’re eager to reciprocate. If it’s a co-worker, or anyone really, you’re asking a favor from, you can even offer suggestions as to ways you might be able to begin repaying the favor immediately. “I know what I’m asking is inconvenient for you. I’ll be happy to lay out and edit the next two monthly company newsletters as a way of saying thank you unless there’s something else you’d rather have me take off your hands.”
12. Respect their no answer. It’s hard, but try not to take it personally. Resist the urge to beg. If you beg and they change their mind, they’ll regret doing it the whole time and probably won’t do that good of a job for you. Worse yet, they’ll regret that they said yes to you. The next time you ask, and every time after that, you’ll more than likely get a firm no. Or they will avoid you altogether.
13. Asking for favors also extends to asking people for advice about something they’re normally paid for giving. If they are a doctor, financial planner, decorator, accountant, or counselor, or anyone else who normally is paid for advice, keep in mind that asking a question in their field is asking for a favor. Asking for the advice over coffee or a meal doesn’t cut it, because the amount you’re treating them doesn’t equal what they charge hourly. Do them (and your reputation) a favor by asking for their business phone number or website and then making an appointment.
14. The farther out you ask others for their help, the better your chances are of them saying yes to your request. In his fascinating and insight-filled book Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert shares that when asked far in advance for a favor, people more often say yes. The reason? When thinking about the future, people are more optimistic about what they’ll be able to comfortably complete. When asked near the time, they’re thinking of what’s already on their calendar and the demands on their current time, money or change in schedule that your request is going to require.
15. Thank them graciously if they say yes. You’ll want to thank them verbally as soon as they say yes. Let them know how much their yes means to you and how you appreciate them for it.
As they’re performing the favor, thank them several times if you’re around. For something like helping with a move, you’ll also want to provide meals and snacks for the day, and follow up with a thank you call the day after the move-in is complete.
Next, you’d send a written — yes, a written — thank you via snail mail. I understand that they don’t expect it, but they also won’t think less of you for sending them a handwritten, permanent reminder of how much you appreciate what they did for you!
This applies to all thank you’s for favors. In addition, a small gift is usually a kind and well-received gesture. Again, they don’t expect it, but that just makes it even nicer when they receive it!
Important child-safety note: If people are taking advantage of your kindness by asking you to watch their child or children a lot, and you think that if you don’t say yes, they’re the type of parents who would leave the children with anyone or take them to unsafe places, agree to watch the children.
You aren’t doing it for the parents.
You’re protecting the innocence and well-being of children. Besides, those precious little ones are going to need all the good influence and love you can lavish on them. You might want to discuss the matter with two or three other trusted adults in your circle who would join you in agreeing to watch the children and befriend the parents.
For over five years, my late husband and I basically parented a child who wasn’t ours. It was expensive, exhausting, time-consuming and difficult. We both worked full time, and even though we were in our early twenties, my husband had cancer.
Today, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. We loved that little girl, and I know that her being with us kept her from being around many of her mom’s boyfriends who, we feared, might have — well — what you imagine is probably correct. When you impact children, for good or bad, you impact eternity. Looking back, you won’t regret one moment you spent with them.
Tit-for-Tat? No, It’s Not Suppose to Be Like That
Good manners ask us to lay out the welcome mat for everyone. Good manners never suggest that we allow ourselves to become a door mat. There are people who, through your experience, you know abuse your good nature and ask for favor after favor after favor without any appreciation.
You need to cut those people off from your favor pipeline.
Begin with a simple “I won’t be able to lend a hand. I’m certain you’ll find someone.”
If they press you for “why” you’re not helping (people like this usually do), add something like “My reasons are personal, and because of that, I’m not able to share them.” Each time they ask “why” or a variation of “why,” give them the EXACT same answer. Excuse yourself and leave if you need to; eventually, they’ll get the message. Here are Three Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty, where I share more how-tos for getting your no across with graciousness.
But I’m going to guess that fewer than ten percent of the people we know are like that. For the other 90+ percent, try to say yes as much as possible.
Because it makes us better people.
Sure, it might be inconvenient, and we might regret it at the time we’re doing it, but over the years, all the good we do will come back to us. Not in a tit-for-tat way. Not in a keeping score kind of way, as in thinking, “I did you five favors, and so far you’ve only done one for me.”
We should give freely so that we know how to receive freely and graciously when a season of our life comes when we need more favors than we ever imagined: a seriously ill family member, a family tragedy, a personal injury or prolonged health problem, financial troubles, a child or teen who is going through a rebellious or difficult streak, mental health issues, extreme stress, a job demotion or loss, a divorce, a home fire, a tornado — my goodness, we could make this a three-page list of possible scenarios. But you get it, right?
There are seasons when people need more help than at other seasons, and ALL of us are going to experience one or more of these seasons.
So let’s not keep score.
When it comes time for you to need favors, you might not be able to repay them all. And that’s OK. Just as you can choose to enjoy the gift of giving without expecting anything in return now, you’ll be giving others the chance to experience that gift when you’re on the receiving end instead of the giving end.
No one except your math teacher ever said things had to be equal to be right!
“People. People Who Need People…”
Favors. They come in all sizes. We’re asked because we’re the only one the other person knows to ask, or because the person has already asked everyone else.
Regardless, we are all going to need to ask from time to time, and in some seasons, too many times for our own comfort.
Asking and respecting the answer with graciousness, politeness, and sincerity is the way we’ll want to do it.
Fulfilling favors (while respecting our personal boundaries and not allowing ourselves to become doormats) is one beautiful way we share the fruit of our spirit.
It comes down to the fact that people do need people to get through this world. It’s not a solo journey. The people who realize we need to be able to rely on each other really are “…the luckiest people in the world.”
Thank you for sharing your time with me today. If I can answer any questions, you can email me at [email protected].
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Until next time, keep doing what you were created to do. Bless the world by being you at your best!