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July 13, 2009

Ask-o-logy: How to ask

I'm excited! Not one thing in particular. More like... grad school almost done, a few job possibilities around the corner, snagged two new Google voice telephone numbers, possible travel to NY and Montreal coming up in August, some top secret interesting developments looming and... it's my Grandma's birthday today!!

The big 88.

Happy Birthday, Tzush!!!

We went to Bahia, a Mexican joint, for lunch. Here she is double-strawing a daiquiri. I will keep this picture with me and look at it the next time I feel like complaining or wimping out. About anything in life. Ever. Because that's a victory shot if I've ever seen one.

Cheers!!!! Salud!!! NOROC!!!

If you're getting tired of the charts and just want to launch into Year Two of Asking, fear not: I'm almost done! The regular Daily Asker will be back in a few days! But first...

Today we're going to look at something I was really curious about at the start of the project: What's the best way to ask?

1) Is it better to ask, negotiate or persuade?

I asked 324 times, negotiated 31 times, and persuaded 50 times.

By which method worked better, I merely mean that it is correlated with compliance with my request. This doesn't show that asking led to juicier or cooler gains, or even more gains. Just that it happened to work more often. Maybe I asked for simpler things, which were immediately granted. Or maybe not!

The fact that I opted for asking most often could mean either I was aiming too low (and didn't need to persuade) or that people around me weren't in negotiation mode: I asked and they agreed, period. No back and forth.

What this suggests:

1. Simple asking is the lowest "investment" -- doesn't usually take a long time, compared to negotiating and persuading. And look how easy it was to get what I wanted. So, worth a shot.

2. If more people I asked had retorted with their own ideal solution, instead of just giving in, that would have led to more negotiations. Same thing if I'd answered their rejection with an alternative solution, instead of trying just to persuade.

3. Persuasion has a high rejection rate, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't work. More likely, I was aiming for things I already knew were hard to obtain. Or, maybe I'm just not very persuasive.

What about a "cross-examination:"

2) Which method works better for getting money, access, info, comfort, time, or fun? (i.e. the categories from day two)

I wish I could find this out, but I don't have enough data for a cogent analysis. I persuaded someone twice to give me extra time on something, so that's a 100% success rate. Big whoop. Even if I group the small categories together into Other, the chart looks suspiciously similar to the one above:

Not sure what the take-away points are, here. Any ideas out there?

Moving on to something more revealing:

3) Is it better to be sweet or snappy?

To find out, I classified my attitude while asking in six ways. This is self-reported, i.e. not objective (unlike, say, the gender of who I'm asking or what city I'm in). Which means it's sketchier than other results, not verifiable, and shaped by however I view the following labels. But let's see where it leads.

Here is a scale I devised. I did my best to briefly describe each attitude, as well:

1. Meek or doubtful: I used phrases like "I know this is a strange request but" or "I'm really sorry to bother you, but..." Alternately, I rushed things, lowered my voice, slinked around, acted generally like a shitzhu who made a doodoo and knows what's coming next.

2. Nice: Asked with a smile and a friendly demeanor. I may have chatted before or during the request. This attitude was most common, spanning personal, professional and commercial interactions.

3. Super Special Extra Nice, with Sprinkles: I really focused on the person I was talking to, perhaps paying a compliment, finding common ground, laughing or teasing, and otherwise working it. Also known as flirting, or giving the BFF treatment. At times genuine, at times calculated.

4. Practical: neither hot, nor cold, but efficient and direct. Focused on results. Typically used for solving problems and getting simple answers quickly.

5. W 'n' D (Wheel and Deal): Approach and diction of buying and selling. Maybe I stated I was shopping around looking for the best price. Maybe I was selling my ideas or skills to a potential employer, encouraging her to trade contact info on an airplane. The number one goal: let's make a deal or connection.

6. Hostile: A few requests ended up with me complaining, demanding to speak with a supervisor, expressing my displeasure with a product or service, standing up for myself or someone else, or taking someone to task for an offense.

One more note: Some requests got two labels, since I sometimes was nice and practical, etc. So the result below is greater than how many times I asked.

One question we'll look at in a later post is which method I used with various groups of people (by gender, profession, context), and how well that worked.

4) Which of these was most effective?

Being nice, and super duper extra nice, were rewarded amply. I don't think I needed a chart to tell me that. But one more remark: the difference between acting meek and nice, at least for me, can be subtle: you're smiling and non-aggressive in both, but in one you feel like you shouldn't claim what you're asking for, and in the other, you do. Only -- look at the difference in results: a whopping 22%.

Food for thought.

Also, I wasn't meek when the asking got challenging. Quite the opposite. Looking at individual data points, I was meek or apologetic when I felt I was bothering someone for something trivial. So it's an important reminder (to myself, at least) to keep that chin up. And remember I'm as important and relevant as the other person in that transaction. Silly, simple... but sometimes, easy to overlook. Out of a desire not to impose, bother, shock.

On the flipside, Wow! Looks like hostility/aggression is much more rewarding than meekness. I didn't resort to it often, but when I felt someone crossed the line, I wasn't afraid to stand up for myself. And hey, if we couldn't all get along, at least I got what I wanted more than 70% of the time. Mu ha ha ha.

I was very surprised the practical, goal-oriented approach so rarely succeeded. These questions included: "Could you move your car?" (yes - twice!) and "Can I put up a flyer here?" (no). In some cases, I got rejected because of policy, and maybe I had sensed it wouldn't be worth devoting time or energy to being sweet and cuddly. But maybe I misjudged, and if I'd tried a little harder -- smiled more, made more eye contact, chatted, introduced the question as a flash of inspiration to a problem -- that would have helped things along. Been less direct, more personable.

I was also a little surprised (and disappointed, I admit) that the wheel and deal approach -- by which I mean, actively showing that I was comparison shopping or trying to bargain -- wasn't more effective. Especially in a recession. When I was simply nice and asked for discounts in commercial settings, that worked a lot better than trying to be explicit about my intentions. Any ideas out there? Would that be a turn-off for a salesperson? Or am I just bad at retail asking?

5) What do preparing, persisting, asking accompanied or alone, and asking for the hell of it all have in common?

The answer, up next, in the How of How.

For anyone who stuck with me to the bottom of the post, it's Dilbert time:

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