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For better or worse, asking for things is easier than you think

Asking for things can be easier than you think, but be aware of any power imbalances at play.
Jakob Helbig
Getty Images/Image Source
Asking for things can be easier than you think, but be aware of any power imbalances at play.

There are countless books on how to become powerful and influence others. But Vanessa Bohns, author of You Have More Influence Than You Think, isn't interested in how to acquire more power. Instead, she's curious about the influence we already have — and how we can use that influence more responsibly. Bohns' research shows us that people tend to be more agreeable than we think, and that while asking for things might be hard, so is saying "no."

In her studies, she has participants ask strangers to do favors — sometimes quite odd ones, like counting beans or vandalizing library books. Bohns says participants consistently expect rejection, but strangers still agree to help. For instance, in the library book study, participants thought 28% of people would agree to it, when 64% — over half — said yes. Bohns' research shows that the dynamics of requests and rejections aren't quite what we expect.

Here are excerpts of our conversation with Bohns, edited for length and clarity.

Asking for what we want can be nerve wracking. Is this anxiety misplaced?

Bohns: I feel very strongly that our fears about asking are overblown. We think if we ask someone for advice, they're going to judge us negatively, when in fact they tend to judge us more positively. We think that if we ask someone for something, they're going to say "no." But they're less likely to say "no." We think that it's gonna damage the relationship, when in fact it's been suggested that it actually might strengthen the relationship.

If someone's asking you for a favor — someone who's a friend or a stranger ... there's this kind of social element of risk. What if they don't like me, what if they think I'm a jerk? What if I damage the relationship?

It's really hard to say no. We will often agree to things that we don't actually want to do. I don't think that means we shouldn't ask for things, but I do think it means that we need to ask for things more mindfully.

Bohns did a study on unrequited workplace romances, surveying close to a thousand STEM graduate students to see if this dynamic applied to romantic requests too. She asked about experiences they had pursuing a colleague and getting rejected, and being pursued by someone they weren't interested in.

How can we know when people are freely giving their consent?

Bohns: What we found was that people who were rejected thought it was much easier for the person who rejected them to do it than the people who had to do the rejecting. They thought "it was actually pretty easy for this person to say no to me," and that it didn't really affect their later behaviors. But the people who actually did the rejecting said that they did all sorts of things to change their behavior. They avoided the person afterwards. They might have even taken on different projects, or dropped off of projects that they were working on.

So we might think, you know, if you're interested in someone, just go for it, what's the harm? But it's hard to reject people, just like it's hard to be rejected.

And when we broke it down by people who had been pursued by someone who was in a higher position of power, the gap got even bigger when there was a power dynamic.

One reason why we forget that it's so hard for people to say no to us, she says, is that there is something called a hot/cold empathy gap — referring to "hot" and "cold" emotional states. A situation where you have to look someone in the eye and say "no" might be a hot state, whereas imagining that same situation in the hypothetical would be a cold state.

Bohns: We're not very good at simulating a hot emotional experience when we're not in it.

One of my favorite examples is if you go out and eat this delicious dinner. At the end, you're full, and you're asked if you want to pack up the dinner and someone might say, "Maybe you'll have this for breakfast tomorrow." And you just can't imagine actually eating that dinner for breakfast the next morning. It sounds just totally unappealing. And then you wake up the next morning and you're really hungry. And all of a sudden you're like, "Wait a minute. Actually, that spaghetti or pizza sounds pretty good for breakfast."

Even though we have all been full, we forget how different things look when we're actually hungry.

These findings have changed the way Bohns does her job. With her students, whenever she asks something of them (always in person) she is sure to give them a day to think it over and email their decision.

Bohns: I definitely am so much more mindful of the way I ask for things.

It gives them the time and space to sort of think, "Do I really want to do this?" And then, it's a lot easier to say no over email than to do it on the fly, face-to-face with another person.

I think a lot of us don't think that when we're in positions of power. We just ask somebody and forget all these nuances and that actually, it's really hard for them to say no to you in that moment.

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Nic Neves
Yowei Shaw
Yowei Shaw is co-host and editorial lead of NPR's Invisibilia. Her work on the show has taken listeners into the uncomfortable world of racial preferences in dating and whether you can change them, an unlikely love story in martial law era Taiwan and a Midwestern town sharply divided in how it sees wild black bears.