How to Ask for Favors the Autonomy-Supporting Way

How to Ask forMy sister works as a recruiter and HR manager for technology startups in Europe. She has a strong background working with some very successful American companies, so her advice is sought after in her new community. Recently she told me a story about an attempt to get her advice that backfired, and it made me think about the importance of framing a request for a favor in a way that supports autonomy.

My sister was at work when she received word that a delivery had arrived at the building for her and she needed to sign for it. She went to retrieve her package, and found a person there with a box of cupcakes who was clearly not a professional courier. She asked what was going on, and he quickly confessed to being a recruiter interested in getting her guidance. He pointed out that since he was already in the building, she should take time right then to speak with him. Sadly for him, this move was not well-calibrated on his part and I am not sure he will ever achieve his desired meeting.

The cupcake delivery move, while clever, failed for two reasons. Practically speaking, he did not account for the fact that my sister’s work day was very likely already tightly scheduled and so an impromptu meeting was not easy to accommodate. More on the psychological side, this type of request is autonomy-violating. Autonomy is all about feeling like you have the information and ability to make important choices for yourself. If you initiate an exchange with someone under one pretense (cupcakes have been sent to you) and then quickly change the rules (actually I want to talk to you about your work), then you have not provided the person with the information needed to make a reasoned decision about whether to engage. You’ve changed the rules mid-game, and nobody likes that.

There is also the fact that cupcake guy relied on social norms to get my sister’s acquiescence. It’s typical to be thankful when someone gives you a gift, and to feel a sense of obligation. (That’s part of why so many charities will send address labels or even small amounts of money in their donation solicitations; people feel compelled to return the favor.) Asking for a favor in way that requires people to deal with the discomfort of violating social norms in order to say no is not a good way to support a sense of autonomy.

Around the same time my sister told me this story, I had an experience with an online tool that was similar in terms of low autonomy support. I found my way to a site called QuickSprout, which offers an analysis of your website in order to improve your traffic. I figured I’d check it out, so filled out the form that gave my site details as well as some ideas of sites to benchmark mine against. When I finished providing all of that, this is what I saw:

Wait, what?
Wait, what?

Granted, unlike the cupcakes, there is clearly something in this exchange for me in the form of QuickSprout’s analysis. However, tapping into my social and professional networks to expand their reach is a favor. Similarly to the cupcakes, we have both a practical and a psychological problem.

Psychologically, it was never indicated to me that I would need to refer friends in order to see any outcome. In the meantime, I provided data about myself and my website to this service in expectation that I would receive something in return. The rules of the game changed mid-way. That is not autonomy support.

What I expected to have to share to get access to the content . . .
What I expected to have to share to get access to the content . . .

Practically speaking, how am I supposed to craft a compelling social proof message about this site? “You should really try QuickSprout. It sounds like it could be cool, although I don’t know for sure because I can’t see any of their analyses until I invite five people. You’ll totally enjoy also having to refer five people to see any value.” The power of referrals is leveraging a trusted opinion to get people to try your product or service, but a key part of that is that the person doing the referring should be familiar with your product or service.

So, how do you ask for a favor the autonomy-supporting way? Here is a formula to use:

  1. State the benefits of the exchange. What will this favor accomplish? Note that it is ok if the favor is one-sided, because that’s the nature of some favors. Just be clear about that.
  2. Explain what you want the other person to do, and include any key details that might make the favor more or less difficult for them.
  3. Offer an out. Supporting autonomy means giving people a choice. Make sure you ask your favor in a way that makes saying “no” as comfortable as possible

DiemHere’s what I would have recommended to cupcake guy, if he could travel back in time and repair his autonomy-violating gaffe:

Drop the cupcakes off at the office building and ask the front desk to either deliver them to my sister or call her down to pick them up. Do not stick around for this exchange. Leave a note on the cupcakes that says something like,

“I really admire your work and would love to have a 30 minute conversation with you to learn from you, especially about finding successful software engineers. I’ll buy the coffee, you pick the location. I will email you to set up a time if you are willing. In the meantime, please enjoy the cupcakes.”

This rewrite clearly states the outcome (he’s benefitting by getting her perspective on something specific), the activities being requested (a 30 minute meeting over coffee in a location convenient for her), and makes it easy for her to say no by removing the face-to-face element. Yet, I bet it would make her less likely to say no.

But wait a minute . . . wasn’t cupcake guy just a good salesperson?

Here’s where it’s important to keep your ultimate objectives in mind when designing an experience. If cupcake guy wanted my sister to pay him $10 or get her signature on a petition, putting her in an uncomfortable situation might have worked very well. Conceding to the request in that case is a quick way to end the encounter. But what cupcake guy wanted was a longer engagement. He wanted to have a conversation with someone who would be thoughtful about his needs and questions, and very likely to add someone to his professional network.

I’d argue that tough sell techniques are rarely advantageous in the long run. Whether you’re raising money for a non-profit, selling a physical product, or soliciting participation in an event, you will almost always want to think about a long-term relationship with that person. You want the person to donate a second time, buy their replacement product with you when the first one wears out (or is rendered obsolete), or to come to next year’s event too. And you want to create a warm relationship that makes people want to evangelize for you.

So, no, I don’t think cupcake guy was a good salesman, and I don’t think QuickSprout did a good job selling me on their solution either.

What’s your favorite tip for successfully asking for a favor?