Etiquette expert Mary Mitchell offers tips on how to ask someone for a favor. Plus, how to respond graciously when turned down or when the request is granted.
You can do this.
Asking for a favor isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. Not only do you get the assurance that someone will pick up your mail or check in on your cat, but you also get the great feeling that you’re part of a larger community of people who are looking out for each other and pitching in to make each others’ lives easier.
So how do you get started?
“The best way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want,” says Mary Mitchell, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” (Alpha).
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“Role-model being willing to help,” she adds. “Then you have the right to ask other people to help you.”
You might, for instance, pick up on your neighbor’s concern about last-minute trip preparations and offer to put his garbage cans out on the street. If your friend mentions a scheduling conflict, you can offer to pick up her kids from school along with your own.
“This is all about nurturing relationships, and if your antennae are up about the other guy, what might really help that person, it’s nice to offer (a favor),” says Mitchell, who offers these tips.
Determine if your request is reasonable. The question to ask yourself: “If the shoes were on the other feet, would I want to do this?” If you would happily watch your friend’s kids for an hour, you’re on firm ground. If her kids hate your kids and you would rather clip a newborn’s toenails than deal with the angst that’s likely to result from a group get-together, you should probably refrain from asking your friend to host one.
Ask in a timely manner. Have you seen those office posters that say “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part?” That slogan is worth keeping in mind. “Don’t put the other person in such a time crunch that it becomes a huge imposition,” Mitchell says.
Ask by phone or face-to-face. This is one of those times when it’s important to make a personal connection; texting generally isn’t appropriate.
Give the other person a way out. Mitchell might say, “I’d be so grateful if you could (do this favor for me). Is that something that might work on your end?” Note how she phrases that last sentence. It’s hard for someone to say they can’t do something for you. It’s easier for them to say something “wouldn’t work” for them at a particular time.
Don’t go negative. Avoid wording such as, “I totally understand if you can’t do this,” which anticipates rejection and downplays the other person’s willingness to help. Mitchell sees a parallel with the person who argues with a compliment (“Oh, this old thing? I hate the way I look in it.”) The compliment-denier is effectively belittling the judgment of the poor person who stuck their neck out and said, “That shirt looks great on you.” It’s much better to smile, say “Thank you,” and move on when you get a compliment — and much better to stress how grateful you’d be when you ask for a favor.
Respond graciously. If the other person says no, you can say, “I understand. Thanks for considering.” If the other person says yes, “Oh! You’re wonderful!” works well.