Recently two former law school classmates reached out to me for a favor. One of them did it right, and one of them did it wrong. I'm really glad about it, because it helps me do my job better.
My job is to help college kids get comfortable with "networking" -- a word I hate, but that stands for a concept we all have to learn. You'll need help some day, and learning how to ask for it well, from people who are mildly favorably disposed toward you, is a skill that will pay really big dividends in your life.
There are some counter-intuitive things that come with asking for help. You get better at learning to ask for help by practicing giving help and doing favors. The more you do that, the better you understand, intuitively, what kind of favors people are glad to do and what kind they aren't. You understand what the "payoff" is for the favor-doer. Because that's another counter-intuitive thing. When you need a favor, you can be blinded by what YOU are getting out of it, and you feel ashamed and encumbered and sorry that you aren't the one in the powerful position of offering help, rather than being in the humbling position of asking for it. But you shouldn't be blinded! By asking for help, you are GIVING the OTHER PERSON a small gift: you are flattering them, you are putting them in the powerful position, and, especially if the help you ask for is easy for them, you are letting them feel generous and valuable and proud without having to do much work.
That's why people like you more after they have done you a favor than they do before you asked them for one. Strange, but true. (At least, I seem to remember believing it is true after reading Influence.) When someone has done you a favor they feel better about themselves (because they are a generous person who is sought after for valuable advice and powerful help) and they feel better about you, because they have invested some time in you, and they must have done so for a good reason, and also they now have a stake in you, and when you succeed, they look better, and also, you now owe them a favor, so they would like it very much if you get to a place where you can return the favor someday.
Anyway, so I was favorably inclined to both of my old classmates, each of whom I hadn't heard from in a while. They both buttered me up in a good way with their approach -- I have this interesting problem, and you seemed like the right kind of person to help me get unstuck with it. I know you have a lot of good ideas, and you're well-connected, so I wonder if you'd be able to help me.
If you want me to help you that's a really good way to ask. It taps into something that I am proud of about myself, and it lets me know that my natural tendencies will probably be enough to assist you -- so the investment of work on my part isn't likely to be so cumbersome, which is important because I am busy. That's important if you are not someone whose prior relationship with me makes me ready to move the earth on your behalf -- if I have a mild interest in your success, but it doesn't keep me up at night. Meanwhile both of the requests tapped into my natural curiosity -- what kind of intriguing problem is this, I wondered? Probably narcissism helped, too. It's nice to have smart, successful people seeking me out, and I wanted to learn a little bit more about what kind of problem they see me as particularly suited to help.
And then one of them botched it, and the other one didn't. Maybe part of it was in the delivery, but I don't think so. One of them was on the phone, and made the introductory pitch by voice -- I was thinking about you, and this seemed like a problem you could solve. I said, yeah, go on, and he went into it. We were on the phone for about two hours on a weeknight -- a lot of time for me to work on a stranger's problem. I didn't mind, though, because my friend was right about the kind of problem, it was right up my alley, and he was there with me, listening to me think it through, so I got to feel smart and helpful and appreciated for those two hours, and he asked good questions and gave me feedback and now and then said, ooh, that's really helpful, I hadn't thought of that, I'm so glad I called. Tiny rewards, but they helped me through.
The other one approached me by email, same proposition, intriguing problem, thought you might have a good viewpoint on it. I said, hmm, intriguing, would be glad to help if I can, I'm available for coffee or a beer in the next few weeks. And he botched it, and thinking about why has taught me some helpful stuff. He ignored my suggestion of coffee or a beer and instead sent me the problem by email. There was homework -- go follow this link, learn this background information, and then help me find a solution to it. It became an assignment without a payoff. I immediately didn't want to help anymore, because I'm too busy to go follow the link and watch the videos. I'm not too busy to have a beer with an old classmate, or to listen to him talk about a problem, or even to spend 2 hours on the phone on a weeknight if something turns out to fascinate me, but I don't want to get given a homework assignment about something that I haven't chosen to be interested in, to work on alone. I expect doing the homework assignment wouldn't take anywhere close to the 2 hours I spent on the phone with my other classmate, so why am I resistant? Because he jumped too far with the ask. If my first classmate had said, hey, do you have two hours right now to talk about someone else's problem, I probably would have said no. But I had a few minutes to be intrigued, and then I got caught up in the problem, and rewarded by the small but affirming bits of feedback I was getting from interacting with my friend, asking questions and hearing him respond to my thoughts. In contrast, an equally compelling project, delivered by email from someone who doesn't want to make time to talk to me about it, just made me feel lousy.
I am mildly put out by the second guy now, and I like the first guy a tiny bit better, even though the first guy made more of an imposition on my time and the second guy, theoretically, was more conscientious, by outlining the whole problem and inviting me to solve it at my convenience. The problem is, people who do favors get a reward by doing it. Part of that reward is in the interaction itself, the feeling that you are strengthening a relationship by helping. The second guy focused on the problem and forgot about the relationship.