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Think They'll Say No? You're Probably Wrong

A new study out of Stanford shows most of us grossly underestimate how willing other people are to help us out. All you have to do is ask... twice.
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Your business will do better if you have help. Maybe it’s getting that graphic designer friend to take a look at your logo or an industry insider to sit down for a coffee and share a crucial bit of knowhow, but whatever the exact form of the favor, getting other people to extend a helping hand makes your life easier.

But chances are you aren’t asking for enough favors.

Why? Research shows most of us wildly underestimate others’ willingness to say yes. One recent study found, for instance, that participants guessed they’d need to ask ten people to borrow their cell phone for a short call to get three to say yes. In fact, they only needed to ask six. Assuming others will say no in this way makes rejection-averse humans less likely to ask in the first place.

Now, new studies by the same Stanford-based team that conducted the phone survey experiment are adding to our understanding of what most of us misunderstand about asking for favors -- and the impact of this confusion.

Those asking for favors tend to focus on how burdensome the request is, the researchers sensibly hypothesized, while those being asked for help are more aware of the discomfort of saying no. The result, the research shows, is those in need of help tend to stop asking for it after the first no, whilst those in a position to help are MORE likely to grant a favor if they’re asked twice. Stanford Re:Think explains:

Researchers had participants stop strangers on the Stanford campus and, following a simple script, request two favors: fill out a short survey and then, regardless of how the stranger responded to that request, drop off a letter at a nearby post office. Before sending the participants out, the researchers asked them to guess what would happen, so that the predictions could be compared with the strangers’ actual behavior. The help seekers expected that people who refused the first request would be much less likely to say yes to a second request.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. "What we found," [doctoral candidate Daniel] Newark says, "was that the percentage of people saying yes to the second request was higher than the percentage saying yes to the first request." In other words, saying no the first time actually made people more likely to say yes the second time, even though the two favors were equally small.

"It can be very difficult for help seekers to appreciate the discomfort of refusing someone’s request for help not only once, but twice."

So what’s the takeaway for business owners? This second study reinforces the simple message of the first -- don’t be shy about asking for help -- but also adds an important corollary to it. Don’t write off a person as unwilling to help just because they say no once. You’re more likely to have success the second time around.

"Even helpful people refuse to help sometimes. When someone tells us no, it could be because of circumstances that have nothing to do with a person’s willingness to help, and in the long run, we’ll be better off if we’re not quick to write people off after a single rejection," concludes Newark.

Are you too quick to label people as unhelpful?




IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Oct 3, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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