“To ask or not to ask” that is the question.
It’s the one I ask myself whenever asking someone for something stands between me and what I want.
I’ll show you what I mean.
Whether what I want is to know what perfume someone walking down the street is wearing, or to use a bathroom at a restaurant where I’m not a customer, or to get a discount on a quote from a supplier, or a better seat on the plane, or more time off from work, or even a higher salary, I’ve found that unless I ask, I will never know if I will in fact be able to get what I want.
The first time that I remember dealing with this dilemma was when I was 8 years old while going to tennis camp in Miami, Florida. It was a stinking hot summer afternoon when John McEnroe, my tennis hero of the time, came to the country club where I was going to camp to have a hit on one of the courts. As I write this post I can almost feel my excitement when I spotted him on a court that was a few meters from where I was standing while I waited for the afternoon practice to begin. Very quickly, my excitement turned into an obsession to get his autograph. To his misfortune I was quite a determined kid so I decided to stand by the side of the court to wait until he took a break from his practice so that I could ask him to sign a tennis ball. But as I soon found out (and to my own misfortune), John McEnroe can be much more stubborn than any 8 year old could even dream of being. And what happened next taught some very valuable lessons in asking for what I want.
On my first attempt to get his autograph, not only did he mumble a ‘no’, he also proceeded to spit on the ground and ignore the ball and marker that I was extending in his direction. Determined to get his signature, I stayed by the side of the court waiting for him to come back to his towel and water bottle. As he walked towards me one more time, I decided to be more proactive and I threw the tennis ball that I wanted him to sign in his direction. He did catch it, but instead of signing it, he looked at it and threw it on to the court, in the opposite direction of where I was standing. (so much for my tactics) Because I still had a few more minutes before my coach would call me back to the court, I decided to wait for him to come back one more time. This time, as he walked towards me, my heart was beating at a million beats an hour. I looked at him in the eye and as I extended a new ball and a marker I said to him: “Mr. McEnroe would you please sign this ball for me?” He didn’t even look at me as he grabbed the ball and the marker from my pudgy hand and mumbled: “well I guess I’ll have to.” And he proceeded to sign the ball and return it to me!!! After I thanked him, I grabbed my signed ball back and ran back to the clubhouse to show-off my victory to the other kids.
By following what I learned from McEnroe on that hot summer day I’ve been able to get most things that I ask for. This has included 6 weeks of leave from work – with one day’s notice, a 15% increase on a pay package, access to the busiest doctors on my territory while I was selling prescription drugs, permission to work from home, extensions on deadlines, exit rows on multiple flights even though I’m 1.60 tall and vegan meals at steak houses.
Here are my ground rules for asking and getting what I want:
- Know that the worse that can happen if you ask is that you’ll get rejected. Most times that will be with a simple “no”. And most times, hearing a “no” is small change in comparison to what you stand to win if you get a “yes”.
- Ask as if you’re sure that you’ll get what you want. Before you ask, convince yourself that what you’re asking for is normal – not an outlandish request. Play that poker face to the max.
- Ask the right person. In the example above, McEnroe was the only person who could sign the ball for me. But if he hadn’t done so on my third attempt, I could’ve approached my coach to find out if he knew McEnroe and maybe could pull some strings to get me an autograph. In the universe of work, usually a manager or a supervisor will get you what a front line employee won’t.
- Ask nicely. Even after McEnroe spit on the ground, ignored me and was plain ole’ McEnroe, I did not change my tone when asking. I let him be the lesser person. I just watched him throw his tantrum while I kept my eye on the ball (literally) and continued to be polite.
- Ask until you get it. Getting what you want might take some persevering. Just as well, I’ve found that timing is everything. Sometimes it simply works to come back later, when the person who can give you what you want is not as busy or is in a better mood. While working as a medical sales representative, after multiple attempts and many rejections, I found this to be true with most receptionists at doctors’ consulting rooms. I called it the “glycemic index phenomenon”. If I asked a receptionist for permission to see a doctor soon after they’d eaten a candy or a chocolate bar, it was likely that they were experiencing a sugar low and were in a bad mood. Consequently regardless of how polite I asked to see the doctor, I got rejected. I learned that the best time to ask them for something was right after they had their caffeine hit and were feeling high and energetic. Following that logic, I proceeded to buy coffees for moody receptionists who insisted on denying me access to doctors (i.e. my potential customers). To some this would come across as bribery, but in actual fact I was trying to regulate their body chemistry!