Want answers? Ask questions.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Check out some of the great athletes and read about the amount of time they spend practicing. You’ll often hear that they were the first to arrive for practice and the last to leave. I’ve read about countless authors whose manuscripts were rejected forty or fifty times, and then on that fifty-first submission—eureka!
Whether developing or simply polishing a skill, repetition will enlarge your storage area. How do you get better at a specific skill? Repeat it, practice it, explore it, and examine it. And always be looking for opportunities to improve it.
Ask the right person.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but people often make the mistake of assuming the people they’re speaking with have far more authority than they actually have. The drive-up teller at the bank can’t increase your line of credit. The delivery people can’t give you a discount on the furniture they’ve just delivered. And you certainly wouldn’t ask the receptionist at your company for extra vacation time.
While doing research for this book, I came across several sources that really resonated with me. I decided that I wanted to know more about some of what the authors and researchers had shared. In the case of the authors of Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, I debated whether to go through their publisher or agent. But taking my own advice, I called the authors directly. They were happy to share some of their thoughts with me regarding their book and the marketing of it—information I would never have gotten from anyone else. This emboldened me to call Francis Flynn, the author of an article titled “You Have to Ask,” and inquire about additional resources.
Figure out who has the ability to meet your request—and direct your question specifically to that person.
Don’t ever hesitate to ask to speak directly to the boutique owner about a refund or the customer service manager about a billing error.
If you’re contemplating the benefits of starting your Tuesday morning meeting earlier, ask the meeting chairperson, not the featured speaker.
If a package is being delivered at an inconvenient time, ask your doorman, not the building manager, to look after it.
When in doubt as to who has the authority or responsibility—just ask!
Ask at the right time.
There’s truth in the adage “timing is everything.” Asking your girlfriend to marry you when she’s just returned from having a root canal is not good timing, nor is asking your boss for a raise on Friday at 4:30 in the afternoon. When in a senior management meeting regarding corporate ethical issues (and one that’s running way too long), asking for clarification regarding the placement of the soda machine in the cafeteria isn’t terribly wise. Asking for a refund when you’re still hot under the collar is timing that could definitely be improved upon.
Examine the circumstances and try to determine the timing that will render the most favorable response. Many questions are spontaneous, but for those that aren’t, creating a road map is advisable. There will be times when you have little choice, but whenever possible, evaluate the circumstances and decide if a postponement is in your best interest. For instance, many people will be favorably disposed toward granting requests when they have just been granted one themselves. In the same way a road map shows various route options, yours should list possible questions, potential answers, and your probable responses to them.
Ask the right way.
At the conclusion of a workshop for a business group in New York State, one of the attendees approached me and said that asking for what she wanted was never an issue. Her problem was that positive results were hardly ever forthcoming. And we discovered that this had to do with the way she asked her questions.
In the ’60s, recording artist Bob Dylan railed against national injustices in what are now famous songs. He was smart, witty, and direct in his delivery, but his distinctive singing voice wasn’t always easy on the ears. In fact, back then you were either a fan—or you weren’t. Then along came the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary. The trio covered many a Dylan song, but with gorgeous harmonies and softer edges. The songs found a huge audience.
This story illustrates the adage “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” And nowhere is this truer than when it comes to asking. Your attitude, body language, and tone of voice carry as much weight as your words. A few things to consider:
- People hear your “voice” before they digest your words. The qualities in your voice as you ask questions have a lot of effect on the answers you get. Tell someone to go to blazes in an angry tone and that person may feel compelled to strike back. Tell that same person where to go in a humorous tone (with a warm smile on your face), and you may evoke a smile in return—and maybe even an invitation to coffee.
Always consider a pleasant tone of voice as your default. Try this exercise with the sentence “I want your help.” Say the sentence aloud, first emphasizing the word “I.” Exaggerate it, saying it much louder than the remainder of the sentence. Notice how this makes you the focus of the question. Now say the sentence again, this time emphasizing the word “want.” This makes it clear that you want something. Next, say it emphasizing the word “your,” and finish by just emphasizing the word “help.” Both of these shift the focus to the person with whom you are speaking, making that person understand that he and she has something special that you admire and respect. The words you emphasize can have a dramatic impact on the response you’ll receive.
- Soften the edges. One of the ways I soften the edges is to inject a considerable dose of humor into some of my questions so that the person I am asking knows I am not living or dying based on his or her answer. Don’t box the respondent into a corner. Let the person see or hear your human side. Smile when asking in person, and let people on the phone “hear” your smile. You’ll be letting the person know there is plenty of wiggle room, which takes the pressure off.
While I was writing this book, I received a call from someone who knew the subject matter. When I answered the phone I heard, “So, how are we doing?” The words registered, but what really came through the phone was something unspoken: the cheerful, smiling attitude that accompanied them. Later that day, the caller confided in me that she put a lot of effort into making sure that her attitude came through. And it did.
- Ask—don’t demand. A well-phrased question will often trump an out-right demand (although there are times when demanding is appropriate). Requesting is usually far more productive. Consider the contrast in these examples:
- “I insist on speaking to your supervisor immediately” vs. “Would you please allow me to speak with your supervisor so that we can move this issue forward?”
- “I want to know what prevented you from finishing this report on time” vs. “Help me understand why you had trouble meeting this deadline so I can support your time/workload.”
- “Give me my money back now!” vs. “Would you assist me with coordinating a refund?”
In most instances, you’ll benefit from having the person to whom you address the question consider you to be a “nice guy.” In other words, your tone will communicate the message that you’re both trying to accommodate each other.
Ask with confidence.
Start by believing that you deserve what you’re asking for—and expect a positive response. This expectation precedes you like your breath. It sets a tone that steers things toward your desired outcome. When you imagine a favorable response to your question prior to asking it, people can sense your self-confidence and hear it in your voice. This takes practice. Visualize the outcome in your mind. Draw a mental picture and dwell on that picture, even embellishing the results. Focus on the positive outcome of a meeting or encounter for several minutes just prior to the event, and chances are you’ll be setting yourself up for great results.
Extracted from The Answer is Yes But First You Have to Ask, Copyright © 2012, Jim Charette, www.jimcharette.com.