Help Is Here
There’s never a guarantee that you’ll get exactly what you want — but if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. For a lot of us, though, asking for something we want is uncomfortable, even painful. It doesn’t matter what it is: a raise, a promotion, a favor from a friend, an extension on a deadline. The very act of asking can turn otherwise composed people into jelly.
Sound familiar? Then we’ve got good news for you: There’s no need to be wobbly, nervous, and unsure. In fact, there are some pretty basic mechanics to the art of asking. Here, we break it down into seven simple steps anyone can master. With this framework and a little practice, asking for — and getting — what you want should be a snap.
Step 1: Believe You Deserve It
“To convince others, we need to convince ourselves,” social psychologist Amy Cuddy writes in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. The first step, then, is to decide that you’re worthy and that you deserve what you’re asking for. Just believing you deserve what you want doesn’t mean you’ll actually get it, but it does set you up to enter the situation from a position of strength.
Convincing yourself you’re worthy may be a challenge. According to Kathy Caprino, a career and success coach dedicated to women’s advancement, everyone has “power gaps” — areas in which we feel less capable and confident than we want to be. And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be worthy.
Here’s a little test to boost your confidence: Are your friends constantly telling you you’re out of touch with reality? No? Then you’re probably a pretty good judge of circumstance. If you think you deserve what you want, it’s a fair bet you do.
If you’re really worried about projecting confidence, try this breathing trick suggested by Mary Civello, longtime news broadcaster, author of Communication Counts, and president of the executive communications consultancy Civello Communications: Inhale for a count of three, hold it for a count of three, and exhale for a count of three. You’ll feel relaxed and ready for your big ask. For an extra boost, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language, which explains how striking a “power pose” can make you feel more powerful.
Now you’re ready to walk in and start asking.
Step 2: Describe the Situation
Before you launch into your question, you’ll need to set the stage. It doesn’t need to be complicated; describe just the facts in one sentence. The aim is to be neutral and indisputable, and to provide context. “You want to show that you’re not defensive,” Civello says.
Let’s say you’re angling for a raise. When you approach your boss, you might say something like this: “I’ve been working here for two years and have gotten positive feedback during my annual reviews.”
While you’ve probably spent a lot of time agonizing about your lack of a raise, your boss probably hasn’t given it much thought. She likely thinks you’re a good worker and doesn’t really remember how long you’ve worked for the company. Your opening sentence gives her the information she needs to understand the conversation you’re about to have. Some other examples:
You’d like your professor to write a grad school recommendation for you: “I’m applying for an MBA.”
You need to adjust your schedule at work to accommodate your family’s needs: “My daughter is moving to a new school with a later start time.”
You want a shot at a new client project: “I understand you’re looking for someone to work on that new project.”
Step 3: Explain Your Point of View
Your opening sentence was fact-based and neutral. Your next sentence needs to express your point of view on the situation or how it affects you. Again, there’s no need to be defensive. “Play it cool,” Civello says. “And don’t let your face give away any angst you may have.”
Asking for a raise? Your first sentence was, “I’ve been working here for two years and have gotten positive feedback during my annual reviews.” Your second sentence may require a little research: “Most companies like ours offer salary increases once a year to employees who are performing well.”
This helps build your case by expressing why the situation matters. Let’s add to the initial sentences from our first series of scenarios:
“I’m applying for an MBA. A recommendation from a respected professor who knows me well would improve my chances of getting accepted into my top-choice program.”
“My daughter is moving to a new school with a later start time. It’s important to me that I’m able to drop her off in the morning, since I usually don’t get home until after she’s gone to bed.”
“I understand you’re looking for someone to work on that new project. Although I’ve never worked on a project exactly like that before, based on my experience with [another client], I think I have the right skills.”
Step 4: Ask for What You Want
Did you notice we’re already at step four and it’s only now we’re actually asking for what we want? You’ve calmly and confidently set the stage and explained your rationale. Now you’re ready to ask. Be straightforward and direct.
Although asking can feel awkward and uncomfortable, remember that the worst thing that can happen is that the person says no. And while “no” may be disappointing, if you listen carefully and with a flexible mind, that rejection may contain a hint of why, and sometimes a clue as to how you need to readjust your expectations, your strategy, or your ask next time.
Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, says, “Feedback does not tell you about you. It tells you about the person giving the feedback.” You can use that information going forward if things don’t go your way.
Here’s how to phrase your actual ask:
“I’ve been working here for two years and have gotten positive feedback during my annual reviews. Most companies like ours offer salary increases once a year to employees who are performing well. Can we discuss a raise for me?”
“I’m applying for an MBA. A recommendation from a respected professor who knows me well would improve my chances of getting accepted into my top-choice program. Can you please write a reference for me?”
“My daughter is moving to a new school with a later start time. It’s important to me that I’m able to drop her off in the morning, since I usually don’t get home until after she’s gone to bed. Would it be possible to adjust my schedule to come in an hour later in the morning and stay an hour later in the evening?”
“I understand you’re looking for someone to work on that new project. Although I’ve never worked on a project exactly like that before, based on my experience with [another project], I think I have the right skills. Would you consider hiring me for it?”
That wasn’t so bad, was it? But wait — you’re not done yet.
Step 5: Reinforce Your Position
Once you’ve asked for what you want, strengthen your case by gently explaining to the person you’re asking why what you want is good for them as well.
You may have to get creative to put yourself in the other person’s place and imagine how they’ll benefit from giving you what you want. But you need to come up with only one good reason for them to agree with you — the simpler the better.
Here are some examples, following the same scenarios we’ve been working off of:
“I love working here and hope to contribute for a long time.”
“Your support means so much to me.”
“If I stay later, I’ll be able to take after-hours calls from our clients on the West Coast.”
“I have so much passion for this project and know I can help make it a success.”
You’ve strengthened your case. Not only is the ask good for you, but there’s something in it for the other person as well. And to be clear, what’s in it for them can be something emotional, like you appreciating their generosity.
Remember, a little flattery never hurt anyone, but it has to be genuine and authentic. “Your energy reveals the truth, and people can feel it, sense it, and know it if you're faking,” Caprino warns.
Step 6: Stop Talking
You may feel like rambling to fill the awkward-seeming silence that hangs in the air once you’ve asked for something. You want to say something to ease the uncomfortable anticipation of awaiting a response or urge the other person to agree with you. But you should just stay quiet: “Too many words shows lack of confidence and drowns out your message,” Civello says.
Chatter is unlikely to bolster your case. And the more you talk, the more likely you are to mindlessly mention something that works against you or takes your conversation off course.
I repeat: Say nothing.
Not sure you can do that? Here’s another perspective: You’ve been thinking about this question for a while. The person you’re asking is processing it for the first time. They may need a moment to reflect. And if you’re asking for something big, they might also need some time to mull their response — or check in with a superior. Show them a little courtesy.
Remember that silence is not negative, and it is not your job to fill it. You have clearly asked a question of another person. They know what they’re supposed to do next.
Step 7: Negotiate
If the answer to your question is yes, then you can stop at Step 6. If it’s a no, then you’ll need to negotiate.
A bruised ego doesn’t have to stop you from getting what you want — or getting closer to what you want. “No” could mean “not exactly.” But even if you hear “no,” remind yourself to stay calm and confident as you continue the conversation.
You’ll be in a better position to negotiate if you’re prepared. Tomes have been written on the art of negotiating, so be sure to read up if you haven’t already (Caprino recommends A Winner’s Guide to Negotiating, by Molly Fletcher).
Civello advises you to focus on your facial expression to show that you’re listening — not necessarily that you agree, but that you hear the other person. “You’re demonstrating that you’re a reasonable person who’s willing to work with them to get part of what you want,” she says. And why wouldn’t you? If you believed you deserved what you were asking for when you started, you should still believe it now.
So what might get you closer to the answer you deserve?
If your boss isn’t ready to give you a raise right now, then ask her what you can do to prove you’ve earned it, and when the two of you might follow up on the subject again. (If her answers are “nothing” and “never,” then at least you have a clear message about your future at the company, and you can get a jump on looking for a new job.)
Your professor doesn’t have time to write your recommendation or doesn’t remember you? The deadline isn’t for another month, so maybe he’ll be done grading papers by then. And you can send him your college transcript and some samples of your work to jog his memory.
You get the point. There’s always wiggle room. And while you might not have the exact answer you want, you do have an answer — and isn’t that better than the anxiety of wondering?