Dos and Don’ts of Asking for a Favor

I get asked for favors all the time, and I’ve noticed that there is definitely an effective and ineffective way to do it.  Here are some tips for getting the best results from this mundane but extremely important business task:

Be Direct

You’ll want to be straightforward and transparent about what you need.  Sending hints in an attempt to get the other person to volunteer to help may fall on deaf ears, or worse, irritate him.  It’s also not a good idea to say you want to spend time with a person socially and then ask for business advice (or some other favor) the second the two of you are sitting down.

Don’t Downplay

Be honest about the fact that the favor will involve a little – or a lot – of effort on the other person’s part.  For example, a colleague wrote to me the other day asking for a recommendation letter.  He said that he understood how busy I am with a new baby and how my time is scarce.  I really appreciated that acknowledgement.

Be Okay with No

If something truly is a favor, it should be all right for the other person to decline.  Instead of putting subtle pressure on the person to accept, which could lead to resentment, communicate that you only want him to help if it’s doable right now, and if it’s not, that you can approach someone else.

Understand That Assignments Aren’t Favors

Along leadership lines, as a manager, a task that you ask your employee to do is not a favor.  She has no choice – it’s part of her responsibilities.  Therefore, don’t say “Can you do me a favor and finish the status report before you leave for the day?” when what you really mean is “Please finish the status report before you leave for the day.”

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  • Loved this piece on a not often discussed aspect of daily communication! First tip is so true: People can’t read minds, but they can see through when we hedge and hint trying to get them to offer up a favor. I just wanted to add (and I have to remind students of this all the time!) that sincere and specific thanks after the favor is completed goes a long, long way for the “helper” wanting to assist again. Thank you! Enjoy your posts! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

    • Anonymous

      Excellent addition, Ellen.  Genuine appreciation and thanks will make someone much more likely to be happy they did you the favor and repeat the goodwill in the future. 

  • I like that last one … understand assignments aren’t favors. Sometimes people like to add “niceties” to workplace communication but a lot of times that can cause confusion!

    • Anonymous

      Agree, Eva!  Thanks for chiming in!