The Power of Asking

There is no weakness in asking. If we wait for someone to give us what we want, chances are we might never get it.

By Leslie A. Knight, MD, FAAFP | Remarks | Winter 2010


If you made a list of things you were given just because you asked for them, how long would your list be? First class upgrades? Airport meal tickets? Rental car upgrades? Full college and medical school scholarships? Paid trips to professional meetings? Increased responsibilities at work?

These items are just a few of the perks that I have received simply because I asked. None of them would have been offered had I waited for someone to notice that I “deserved” it. Recently I asked for a free rental car upgrade. The clerk told me that everyone was asking for free upgrades and I told her, “Of course they are. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Asking is a basic part of negotiating, which most women hate and many men love. I used to hate asking for anything. I hated calling a store to ask a question. I hated asking for special treatment. I couldn’t stand the thought of trying to get something for free or asking for a discount. Negotiate the purchase of a car? The thought of it practically gave me hives. Haggling in a market even where it was expected— no way. I didn’t like the fear I felt about asking for something I wanted. I began reading about negotiation, practiced asking and negotiating with small things and built up my confidence. I am constantly amazed at what I can get. It doesn’t always work (I didn’t get that car upgrade.), but when it does, I feel great.

In life, there are people who negotiate everything and there people who don’t negotiate for anything. Typically, those who do are men and those who don’t are women. Some men look at it as a game. Many women just dread it. Have you ever noticed that children are constantly asking for something, and they often get exactly what they want? I recently asked my teenage daughter why she always argued when I said no, and she replied to me, it’s because most of the time, I’ll change my mind. She has pretty shrewd negotiating tactics because she’s figured out that if she gives a reasonable explanation and the only reason I can give to disagree with her is “because I said so,” I usually will end up seeing it her way.

So, what do people ask for? Linda Babcock, Ph.D. and Sara Laschever, coauthor, in their book, Women Don’t Ask (Published by Princeton University Press, 2003), say that the wage gap between men and women’s earnings can be explained by the fact that women tend not to negotiate their salaries and when they do, they undervalue their work. They ask for smaller raises and bonuses (if any) and the wage gap widens over the course of their careers. Babcock and Laschever also found that women are great at negotiating for others, their children, their departments at work, and their coworkers, but not for themselves. Interestingly, they found that when women are taught now to negotiate, they tend to be successful.

There are many reasons why people don’t ask or negotiate for things they want. I have experienced most of them myself. I was outright afraid of rejection more than anything. What if the other person said no? I’d look like a fool. They might think I was presumptuous. I wanted to be liked, even if I knew I would never see the person again. Sometimes people don’t ask out of fear of hurting the relationship. If you ask for something substantial from the boss and don’t get it, would you worry about how she perceived you after that? The desire to avoid being seen negatively can be a powerful inhibitor.

If the perceived risks are so high, why does anyone go to the trouble of asking for better things? Because if you don’t ask, you don’t get. We all go through life with wants and desires, some large and some small. If you don’t ask for what you want, others may never realize you want something. If they don’t know, how can they give it to you? According to Babcock and Laschever, women hang back because they think that someone will see how good they are or see what they need and give it to them. Not so. The boss is likely waiting for the employee to ask for the raise or the opportunity. If the employee doesn’t ask for it, it’s unlikely she will get it.

When I ask for something, I have found that it’s best to ask people who appear to be in a good mood. I am much more successful if the person is pleasant rather than sour.


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