The opening pages of the Chris Voss’s book Never Split The Difference lays out a hard-yet-beautiful truth:

In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

I’ve seen this proven firsthand for many people. I’ve also seen the negative proven firsthand. Many fail to get what they wanted because they fail to ask. It’s happened to me numerous times.

So Voss is here to help with his excellent set of negotiation tactics. Voss deployed these tactics for many years as a hostage negotiator for the FBI. He tells stories of life-and-death situations where the stakes were at their highest. Many things were asked of him. He asked for things in return. The ability to do this correctly is quite potent.

And illuminating. Through his work, Voss shows that negotiation doesn’t have to be some crude method of trench warfare between people. It can be elevated to a higher form of exchange. It is a better way of asking.

We Hate Asking

I was raised to believe that you shouldn’t ask for anything. Asking was an expression of greed.  You shouldn’t want anything beyond what is already offered or available. It’s a useful attitude but the downsides are clear to me now.

A lot of it goes back to the culture of rugged individualism. I regularly over-value the virtue of self-reliance. To ask for something (a loaned tool, a favor, an opinion, or, God help us, money) is to flagrantly toss aside my charter responsibility to Handle My Own Business. To ask for something is a clear sign of weakness or deficiency.

Which is why I seldom ask for things.

But this is also about my warped sense of self. I tend to see my needs as some strange encumbrance if shared with others. I’ll help other people with their needs all day. Gladly. But I wouldn’t dare ask them to help with mine. It might inconvenience them. It might turn me into some social albatross. This leads me to regularly preface any request with some version of the following:

“I hate to be a bother but …”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking but …”

“Can I trouble you …”

This is strange behavior. To put it simply, my asking feels more onerous to me than the ask itself. For example, I once asked a friend to help me move to a new apartment. The strain that went into making the request, knowing it would wreck my friend’s Saturday, was harder than the physical labor of the actual move.

Then there’s the sense of debt. I hate debt in every form. And because I have more money than sense, I’ll pay a stranger to help me before I ask a friend. Because I don’t want to “owe them a favor”.

So yeah … outside of the workplace, I have trouble asking people for things. You probably do, too. Every one of us is cooped up in some narrow corner of the world, working on stuff that is much harder than it needs to be because we hate asking someone else to lend a hand.

We’re much too sensitive about this. Neighbors used to ask each other for a cup of sugar. These days, we’d treat them as crude suburban panhandlers.

The Heart of Asking

Multimedia artist extraordinaire Amanda Palmer has a great book called The Art of Asking that is largely an autobiography about how and why she asks for things. Her story details the positive impact asking has brought her. But the pleasure isn’t just hers. The exchanges produce something warm and rich for the providers, too. People want to give something. They feel value when they do.

Yet, for all the merit of the book’s thesis, many readers struggle with the idea. Here’s one quote from a self-proclaimed Amanda Palmer fan:

[The book] makes you question your own life and your own choices. How many times have you held back when you could have asked for something, worried that other people would find you annoying or uncool?

Here’s another on how we all feel that hesitation to ask or be asked:

[The book] got me pondering other things, too, like why it’s so frustrating when people stand there staring at me instead of just saying, “Hey, can I ask you something?” or why my first reaction, a lot fo the time, is annoyance instead of acceptance or compassion.

Then there’s the trouble with reciprocity:

[The book] comes off a little selfish to hear about all these times of people helping her and very few instances of her helping back.

At the heart of it all, the trouble with asking is that it demands as much from us as it does other people. At our core, most of us are good people. So the act of asking demands that we be pure in our intent, clear in our need, accepting of the risk (what if they say no?), and generous in our gratitude.

That last one really sticks with me. I’ve seen people be ungrateful when someone helps them. It is repugnant. And yet, I’ve appeared ungrateful to others because I’m so incapable of accepting their help.

We Love Negotiating

As much as we dislike asking people for things, we seem to enjoy negotiation. Even when it’s just a friendly banter. Negotiations help two parties find an upfront exchange of equal value. But “equal” and “value” are delightfully subjective.

When asking a friend if he’d help you move, the friend might say, “Sure. So long as there’s beer involved.”

This is a nice gesture. It is also a negotiation. The friend has named his price. In this case, the price happens to include a special discount. I imagine total strangers would have to pay your friend in actual money. You, however, can pay in beer. All the same, it is a negotiation.

For some reason, this simple, superficial exchange helps me and many others feel better about asking for help. It balances the equation. It gives a better sense of mutual benefit.

Negotiation has many other benefits, too. All of which comes back to the power of asking. The ability to ask for what you want, while demonstrating ways you will provide what others want in turn, is fundamental to any person’s success. So again, I’ll cite the passage from Voss’s book:

In this world, you get what you ask for; you just have to ask correctly. So claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.

This week is an exploration in knowing how to ask for things correctly. The idea of what is “correct” is a matter of style, of course. I’ve read my share of books on negotiation and there are many methods out there. I think Voss offers a style that is the so beneficial, so natural, that doesn’t even feel like negotiation. Or asking.

Image from Veronique Debord-Lazaro