Asking for help doesn't weaken your power, it boosts it

A little humility goes a long way, argues persuasion expert Steve Martin.

by Steve Martin
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2017

It’s difficult to imagine President Trump attempting to win over his political adversaries by asking them for help. Veiled threats, public intimidations and early morning Twitter rants are more the order of the day. But if the ‘latest’ American were to follow advice practiced by the ‘first’ American—Benjamin Franklin was an accomplished seeker of assistance—Trump might actually find the business of running the country a little less turbulent. For Franklin would routinely claim that requesting aid was one of the most effective means of reducing conflict.

Interestingly, Franklin’s advice that leaders should routinely ask for help doesn’t just apply to smoothing disputes between warring factions. It is also a scientifically proven and effective thing to do when it comes to successful management resulting in improved collaboration, increased trust and enhanced well-being for everyone concerned. Here’s why.

People are more likely to say ‘yes’ than you think.

The respected psychologists Frank Flynn and Vanessa Bohns have conducted numerous studies looking at the psychology of seeking help; from soliciting charitable donations to borrowing a stranger’s phone to asking people to fill out lengthy questionnaires. In each case people are first asked to predict the likelihood that people will agree to their request.

In most cases they underestimate. By around half.

So why do we typically underestimate the likelihood that people will say ‘yes’ to our requests for help? It is because, as requesters, we tend to focus on the costs that people will incur if they do say ‘yes’ to us. In contrast, potential helpers are much more likely to focus on the social costs of saying ‘no’. A simple truth emerges. We don’t ask as often as we might despite people being far more likely to say ‘yes’ than we expect. The result? Potential business opportunities are lost. Prospective clients go un-contacted. And opportunities to collaborate are wasted.

The secret to increased power? Asking.

We’ve all experienced being a passenger in a car that travels miles in the wrong direction because the driver (probably a guy) refuses to seek directions in the mistaken belief that doing so is a sign of weakness. Invariably though, any temporary embarrassment (admitting you’re lost) is a small price to pay for the much more powerful position (finding your way) that results.

So rather than being seen as limiting, asking is much better viewed as empowering. The student who raises a hand to ask what she believes to be a silly question increases her power in two ways. First, she gains the information she needs. Second, she gains the appreciation of her classmates, many who were also stuck, but who failed to ask. 

It seems that asking for help can be especially useful when facing difficult situations. Benjamin Franklin recounted how he won favour with a political opponent by asking 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 that German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche had a point. That which does not kill us, does makes us stronger.

You’ll actually feel better for it.

It turns out that Nietzsche’s philosophising has a basis in contemporary science too. Research conducted by Thomas Giloviqh and Victoria Medvec shows a temporal pattern to the regret of not asking. Simply put, any pain and embarrassment that may be felt as a result of requesting help tends to be acute and temporary. Like a bee-sting. It smarts for a few minutes, but rapidly subsides.

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

So maybe the time has come to reach out to that icy-faced colleague, stone-faced client or grumpy manager. If the evidence is true, then chances are you’ll end up in a much better and more powerful position.

And the worse that can happen is you that you end up with the same amount of nothing.

Steve Martin is the co-author of Yes! 60 Secrets from the Science of PersuasionFollow him @scienceofyes  

Image credit: Andrew and Hobbes/Flickr

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