One of the most difficult of all conversational tasks is to ask someone for a favor. Of course, it depends on the favor and on the relationship you have with the person from whom you want the favor. If it’s a close friend and the favor is relatively easy to perform, there is little difficulty and little conversational awkwardness. If the favor is to a superior, say a work supervisor, and the favor one that would be difficult or time-consuming to perform, there would be much difficulty and much conversational awkwardness. Asking a total stranger poses still other problems.
Yet, despite these many differences, some general suggestions may be offered. So, how do you ask for a favor? Here are a few steps:
First and foremost, select an appropriate communication context. Consider the time, place, and medium of communication—at the very least. Is this the appropriate time? Is this the appropriate place? Is this the most appropriate channel (email, Facebook, Phone call, Face to face)? Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Second, give appropriate feedforward. Tell the person you need to ask a favor. Avoid overly long feedforwards where you talk all around the intended favor but take too long to get to the point. Don’t procrastinate.
Ask the favor. Be honest about what you’re asking. Avoid the annoying ploy of asking for a small favor and then when that is granted ask for a somewhat larger one: for example, asking for a loan of $20, getting it, and then before you leave, asking if another $20 would be possible. This may actually be effective in getting you $40—perhaps even more effective than asking for the $40 right at the start. Yet, it seems a bit sneaky and underhanded and is not likely to work a second time.
Some writers would argue that somewhere along the process of favor asking, you compliment the potential favor-giver. Again, this is likely to prove effective. People respond very favorably to flattery, even when that flattery is perceived to be strategically motivated—in this case to get the favor. And yet, this strategy too seems a bit less than totally ethical. A related strategy is to touch the person gently on the arm. This gesture is also a compliment but one that communicates a closeness, a connection.
Give some reason for why you need the favor. This strategy works; people are more apt to comply with a favor request if they are given some reason for it. Studies have even shown that they will comply if the request is prefaced by a reason that doesn’t make sense. For example, in one study a confederate of the researcher broke into a line of people who were waiting to photocopy various items. The confederate was offered less resistance when the request was phrased something like: Can I get ahead; I have to photocopy something than when no reason was offered—even, as in this case, when the reason wasn’t really a reason.
Provide an easy exit; make it easy for the person to refuse. This suggestion is the polite way to go. It enables the person to save what is called negative face—the need to be autonomous, to have the right to do as one wishes, to not be forced into anything. However, it may well be ineffective. In fact, it’s likely to hinder your getting the favor. Yet, it seems the ethical way to go.
The other half of this equation is responding to favors, also an often difficult task.
If the request is refused, accept the refusal graciously or as graciously as you can. In some cases, repeating your urgent need for this request may actually prove effective. Often, however, it damages the relationship—making one person feel guilty and the other rejected.
If the favor is granted, express thanks both verbally and nonverbally. Say something like “I really appreciate this” or simply “thank you,” smile, allow your face to express your satisfaction, and perhaps shake hands, hug, or kiss—depending on the request and your relationship.
In addition to expressing thanks you might also explain how this is going to help you. Something simple is best: This will save me paying a large penalty or Now I’ll be able to buy that text.
If appropriate—as in the loan of money—a promise to pay it back should accompany the acceptance. It should also accompany the request, of course. If the favor is not one that involves a clear repayment, then offer to do the same on another occasion or in some way show that you are prepared and willing to reciprocate.
Express thanks again. A simple “thank you” is often sufficient and ends on a positive note.