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Don't ask "can I ask you a favor": it increases your debt

Sometimes people approach me with a variant of this:

Can I ask you one thing

or even worse:

You are older (/this happened to you) can I ask you some help for this situation I'm in

The bigger issue with this one is that it negates the receiver's skills.
There is no real benefit or "honor" in just being older, or in pure chance having put you through something.

Framing it as "you're good at this" is much better because it would give him some credit.

There are some issues with this approach:

  1. It disempowers me, because I need to comply with "yes" first, and then give even more value with the answer later. It frames me as a servant doing all the giving on cue -without getting anything back, which makes it a sucker's trade-
  2. It increases your debt: now I start wondering "what does he need, is it a big thing?". That thread expands on the taking you're doing.
  3. It makes it more likely that I won't want to reply: if it's a big thing, then I know that I'll be forced to reply and say no, and do it in a way that won't sound mean or harsh. That makes it much easier to just ignore the first question instead

Edit:
Found a better example for the "worst-case frame" for this format.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

This made me smile.

I remember being in a meeting with a new contact — we were meeting for the first time and getting to know each other better.

He was in sales and noticed on my profile I said, "The secret to being a good salesman is to be a bad salesman." So, he wanted to exchange ideas.

He tried to add value by mentioning To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink. But, I started to mention how I'd read through Pink's work and there are better resources out there. I shared techniques and strategies from Nick Kolenda. He seemed blown away.

He tried to add value again by mentioning Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (another popular resource in the persuasion industry). But, he had only read through it and wasn't sure how to apply the principles to sales. So, enjoying the exchange on psychology and persuasion (and having fun), I gave him a real example of how Voss's techniques would look in a real sales call, right there in the meeting. Then, shared with him that it might be best if he simply read Methods of Persuasion.

After that recommendation, it seemed as if he felt that Kolenda's work was this goldmine that he knew nothing about and I was an "expert" in (not true, by the way, I'm still learning).

So, he said to me something along the lines of:

Him: "Look, there's probably nothing I can offer you, but I'd like to know what you think about..."

I smiled, thinking it was funny that he had basically admitted we were in a win-lose interaction with me losing. And, despite that, I had a deep appreciation for his honesty.

I also expected that he'd at least seek a way to give later in the interaction, so I continued sharing what I know and answering his questions.

The problem was, he kept repeating it. Before he would make an ask, he would mention again "there's nothing I can do for you" (not even "probably" this time).

It was almost as if:

  • The more questions I answered, the bigger he felt the gap was in our knowledge
  • The more asks he made, the more he felt he needed to admit that he couldn't give back in order to be "open and honest"
  • And, the more asks he made, the more it went from "I don't know if I can help you" to "I know I can't help you (you're too far ahead of me)"

I wasn't sure if the latter was supposed to be flattery, saying he knows he can't give back and implying it's because I'm "so far ahead of him", but I got annoyed and ended the call early.

It started to feel like: if he really wanted to give back value, he could've tried to find a way. He didn't even make the effort to seek a way to give back in the future. So, he started to come across as one of those guys who simply doesn't get it.

And, that hurt for me a bit because it also felt like when I was younger I might've made the same mistake thinking I was only being honest with the receiver.


All that said, would you guys call a situation like this an exception to the "don't ask 'can I ask you a favor'" rule?

Quote from Lucio Buffalmano on July 19, 2021, 10:37 am

Hey guys,

I got a favor to ask.

If you got 5 minutes to spare, I'd like feedback on this exchange here.

I think it passes since:

  1. It does not disempower us, because you don't need to directly comply with "yes" first, and then give even more value with the answer later. The request for a favor is phrased as a statement instead of a question
  2. It does not affect our debt: Lucio made it clear it's only a 5-minute thing
  3. It makes it more likely that we will want to reply: because it's coming from Lucio, someone who's the head of this website (someone with social capital) and generally a value-giving person. Had it been a stranger, perhaps they'd have to express that they'd be grateful for the feedback to communicate they'd give back in the future

What do you guys think?

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano
Quote from Ali Scarlett on September 27, 2021, 3:39 pm

This made me smile.

I remember being in a meeting with a new contact — we were meeting for the first time and getting to know each other better.

He was in sales and noticed on my profile I said, "The secret to being a good salesman is to be a bad salesman." So, he wanted to exchange ideas.

He tried to add value by mentioning To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink. But, I started to mention how I'd read through Pink's work and there are better resources out there. I shared techniques and strategies from Nick Kolenda. He seemed blown away.

He tried to add value again by mentioning Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (another popular resource in the persuasion industry). But, he had only read through it and wasn't sure how to apply the principles to sales. So, enjoying the exchange on psychology and persuasion (and having fun), I gave him a real example of how Voss's techniques would look in a real sales call, right there in the meeting. Then, shared with him that it might be best if he simply read Methods of Persuasion.

After that recommendation, it seemed as if he felt that Kolenda's work was this goldmine that he knew nothing about and I was an "expert" in (not true, by the way, I'm still learning).

So, he said to me something along the lines of:

Him: "Look, there's probably nothing I can offer you, but I'd like to know what you think about..."

I smiled, thinking it was funny that he had basically admitted we were in a win-lose interaction with me losing. And, despite that, I had a deep appreciation for his honesty.

I also expected that he'd at least seek a way to give later in the interaction, so I continued sharing what I know and answering his questions.

The problem was, he kept repeating it. Before he would make an ask, he would mention again "there's nothing I can do for you" (not even "probably" this time).

It was almost as if:

  • The more questions I answered, the bigger he felt the gap was in our knowledge
  • The more asks he made, the more he felt he needed to admit that he couldn't give back in order to be "open and honest"
  • And, the more asks he made, the more it went from "I don't know if I can help you" to "I know I can't help you (you're too far ahead of me)"

I wasn't sure if the latter was supposed to be flattery, saying he knows he can't give back and implying it's because I'm "so far ahead of him", but I got annoyed and ended the call early.

It started to feel like: if he really wanted to give back value, he could've tried to find a way. He didn't even make the effort to seek a way to give back in the future. So, he started to come across as one of those guys who simply doesn't get it.

And, that hurt for me a bit because it also felt like when I was younger I might've made the same mistake thinking I was only being honest with the receiver.

Great analysis, Ali.

The first time, it was great.

Especially if combined with honest appreciation for the knowledge being shared, gratitude, and maybe even trying to give back in more practical terms somehow.

Repeated often, it thread-expanded on his taking, without making up for it.
Every time it was repeated without any steps to make up for the imbalance, it was a reminder that "you're giving, I'm just taking without giving back".

Ali Scarlett has reacted to this post.
Ali Scarlett
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?
Quote from Ali Scarlett on September 27, 2021, 3:39 pm

 

All that said, would you guys call a situation like this an exception to the "don't ask 'can I ask you a favor'" rule?

Quote from Lucio Buffalmano on July 19, 2021, 10:37 am

Hey guys,

I got a favor to ask.

If you got 5 minutes to spare, I'd like feedback on this exchange here.

I think it passes since:

  1. It does not disempower us, because you don't need to directly comply with "yes" first, and then give even more value with the answer later. The request for a favor is phrased as a statement instead of a question
  2. It does not affect our debt: Lucio made it clear it's only a 5-minute thing
  3. It makes it more likely that we will want to reply: because it's coming from Lucio, someone who's the head of this website (someone with social capital) and generally a value-giving person. Had it been a stranger, perhaps they'd have to express that they'd be grateful for the feedback to communicate they'd give back in the future

What do you guys think?

1 and 3 seem correct to me.

As you say, when the ask from someone who's high-status -hate to say that about myself, but as Ali mentions, in this forum, that might be the case- and someone with the ability to give back is (very) different than from someone with lower status and/or no ability to give back (or unknown ability).
Especially if it's paired up with gratitude and a "fair" approach to social exchanges, which means that people can expect to have their effort recognized -either emotionally, or more practically-.

On point 2, "debt" isn't bad per se. If it's part of a give and take, it's part and parcel of the win-win -just like "debt" in financial terms isn't bad per se, and it's actually good if used for more future value-creation-.
The issue with the debt matters mostly when the debt pushes you deep into the negative territory of value-accountancy, without much room for future value-giving. That's where it can harm you, or break the relationship.
That is more likely to be the case when:

  1. you have a history of being a taker
  2. it's obvious you can't give back
  3. you don't want to give back
  4. it's the very beginning of an interaction, and you want to avoid expanding the taker's thread

Otherwise, in already established relationships, you can be totally cool in taking up debt and it has no negative implications. As a matter of fact, it's often the most honest -and often effective- thing you can do to admit or state you'll have a debt.

Ali Scarlett has reacted to this post.
Ali Scarlett
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Hmm  so when you are new in a field, a student, new in a business what is a better way of asking for help?  In those situations it doesn't seem like you d have much to offer in exchange.

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood

I think asking directly.

Any chance I could ask you how to ...

This could be out of the blue. Feel free to not answer if inconvenient.

Also happy to share about whatever interests you. (topic 1), (topic 2) that I have been working on if that interests you.

I sometimes do some background research and manage to uncover something that they have been asking on LinkedIn or their website. Then, I can tailor the message with more specific things that would interest them.

Lucio Buffalmano and Transitioned have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoTransitioned

Yeah, the issue with this format is that:

  1. It spreads over 2 steps what can be done with one: and since asking without giving is value-taking, you're usually better off keeping it concise
  2. It forces them to first comply with "yes", without knowing what's coming (indeed the best way to answer to that is "it depends what you're going to ask, mate")

So as Matthew says either just ask, or use the first step more strategically, to build them up.

For example:

You: Wow, you are so good at this man, I'm in awe almost (smile a bit, and if he smiles with you, you're on). I'm curious about one thing, may I ask you

Now that you built him up, you've already given (emotionally), so the "yeah go ahead" comes more naturally.

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

"Meta-question" is an apt term for this type of question.
It is a question on whether to ask a question.

I recently joined a Telegram group that set a rule to have no meta-questions.
One question that cannot be asked is

Can I ask something?

In a group chat setting, it floods the chat, and I think there's an even larger barrier to people saying yes to the question.

If one says "yes", finds out about the question, then feels like he doesn't want to answer the question, it may have added pressure in the group setting.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano
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