Regardless of if you’re hanging out with friends or running a business, you will need to make a request of your peers sooner or later. On one hand, you need to get something out of the request. On the other hand, you don’t want to be that guy.
This is a question which has long bothered me: how to impose without being imposing.
As always, I make no claims that I have gotten it perfect… but through running my own company, dealing with others, and generally being interested in psychology I have refined my approach to a series of tricks.
1. Make a Direct Request to a Single Person
This is one that took me a while to figure out, but once I did, it had a major impact on getting what I needed as painlessly as possible. To demonstrate it, let’s use an example: you’re on a trip with friends and have forgotten your toothpaste.
You could choose to announce to the room that you need to borrow some toothpaste (“can I borrow someone’s toothpaste?”). At best, this is a nonspecific request to an unidentified person. We tend to do this because it seems less imposing — it does not put anybody on the spot, and allows someone to step up and be generous.
Unfortunately, the human brain does not respond well to this. There is a very important psychological idea called the Diffusion of Responsibility (aka the Bystander Effect). In more extreme cases, it is the reason that you hear stories of a huge crowd of people watching a horrible accident/event and doing nothing (also see: this quotation about the holocaust). In this case, it means that your friends do not feel a responsibility to act because there are so many others.
Instead, make a direct request to a specific person. Note who has (in this case) a tube of toothpaste and say “I seem to have forgotten mine — could I borrow yours?”
2. Don’t Apologize; Appreciate!
In the movie Wanted, the protagonist is a proverbial doormat – and he always apologies to everyone, for everything.
Apologies are an important part of social communication, but some of us tend to overuse them. When you apologize, it carries with it the implication that you believe you have done something wrong or have something to be ashamed of. When this is true, by all means apologize… but most times that we need to make a request, it is an entirely reasonable and fair request.
Instead, say “thanks for lending me your toothpaste… I hate not brushing.” For extra humility, say “I can’t believe I left mine at home!”
This is much better because it allows the other party to feel good about helping you out of an entirely reasonable situation (one that could have happened to anybody) as opposed to focusing on your mistake. Each party comes away feeling good. You got your toothpaste, and your friend has done his daily good deed.
3. Compliment Where Needed
Positive reinforcement is powerful. I was having a discussion recently about managing people I work with, and a friend in the field of psychology made the recommendation that I compliment the co-worker based upon a certain piece of work he did immediately. She went on to explain the importance of employing such positive-reinforcement soon after the deed, as the window of opportunity quickly closes.
This is really a further extension of the last step, which is making someone feel good emotions associated with the deed of helping you out. Think about it: if you help a colleague and they compliment your work and are appropriately grateful, you will be much more likely to help them again in the future. It seems like common sense almost, but it is surprisingly easy to overlook something like this.