How to ask for things

I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

(Anna Scott, Notting Hill)

We all know this quote from the movie Notting Hill. It resonates so much because it perfectly encapsulates the immense vulnerability that comes from asking. Asking for help, asking for a raise, a promotion, a new job, asking people to buy your book or to come to your talk… Any time I am in a position when I have to ask for something I feel this intensely.

Asking someone for something puts you in a position where you may be rejected. For most people, that’s a very scary prospect. And for this reason, most of us are really bad at asking.

Movies and TV shows are full of people coming in with crazy demands and somehow getting what they want, like in this really great scene from the movie True Grit. That’s what makes heroes, heroes after all. Or they may get all muddled up (more on this later) and make a mess of their ask, only to gain confidence later in the story. But the Notting Hill quote is exceptional for showing you a main character going all out, asking exactly right, and still getting rejected – basically enacting everyone’s worst nightmare.

I was reminded of this when watching Michael Bungay Stanier’s short YouTube video about asking for help, which I highly recommend. In it, he identifies four steps to asking for help, which I think actually work for all asks, and also match the Notting Hill quote perfectly. I want to go through his four proposed steps today and think a bit more about how to make them work for your story, and whatever it is you are asking for.

  • Step 1: Don’t negotiate against yourself!
  • Step 2: Make a clear demand
  • Step 3: Once you’ve made the ask, shut up
  • Step 4: Accept the result, whatever it is

I really love these four steps, and have already started applying them. They help reframe the scary thought of having to face rejection, and focus on what you have control over – the ask, rather than the result.

Let’s look at them individually in terms of story:

Step 1: this is before you actually talk to anyone. This is the moment where you brain is saying: “They will say no! This number is too high. They’ve probably already decided against me. I should just lower my ask. Just ask a little bit less.” Be careful! This is your brain anticipating rejection and trying to avoid it. These aren’t helpful internal thoughts. The real question is: what do you want? That’s what you should ask for. Nothing less.

Look at Anna Scott. She doesn’t go in thinking – I’ll just ask for a coffee and see how we get on. She wants love. And so she asks for love, nothing less. Contrast this with Hugh Grant’s character at the press conference later – who just asks if Anna might stay in England more. Of course, this is a movie, and so she gets the message… but not everyone will!

Step 2 is also super important. Make a clear ask, unambiguous ask! Don’t be Hugh Grant, or Peter Parker asking MJ on a date…. Of course it’s lovely and endearing but in real life there is a pretty good chance the person you are talking to is not going to figure out by magic what you want (or say yes!).

So – state your ask clearly, and avoid any miscommunication.

And on to step 3: You have asked, now stop talking. Let the question sit there. You have done what you can, hopefully stated your arguments clearly – now is the time to shut up. The risk here if you keep going is to end up detracting your ask, or confusing your argument, or like Jack Donaghy here – conduct a whole entire negotiation against yourself…

You have done what you could. And that’s where step 4 comes in: remember you can’t control the answer, only the question. And so, like Anna Scott, you must be prepared to withdraw, dignity intact, if the answer is no. Remember, as personal as it may feel, no is not a rejection. In most cases and despite what movies will make you believe, it’s also not the start of a negotiation. No is simply a no, and if you ask something you must accept the possibility of it, and be at peace with it.

This is why, by the way, I strongly advise against ultimatums of any kind, unless they aren’t an ultimatum but a statement of fact. Ultimatums don’t give a lot of space for dignified retreats. Unless you are absolutely sure of yourself, you must always give yourself the space to walk away, head held high, with pride for having at least tried.

So there you are. Next time you have to ask someone something, remember: it may not go the way you want, but that’s fine as long as you gave it your best shot.  Like Anna Scott, you can feel better knowing you tried. You didn’t win the raffle, but you bought a ticket.

And who knows – it may work!

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