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Asking someone to help you out can be ridiculously stressful.
What if they feel like you’re bothering them? Or using them? What if they say no, or worse, don’t even bother responding?
Those are all real possibilities (sorry). But you can increase the likelihood of getting the help you need and having the other person feel good about it by deploying what psychologists call the “rule for reciprocation.”
In his new book “Pre-Suasion,” the psychologist Robert Cialdini defines the rule: “People say yes to those they owe.” In other words, if you want someone’s assistance, do something useful for them first.
Cialdini is careful to note that the rule doesn’t always work – after all, you could catch someone on a particularly bad day. But generally, it does.
A classic example of the rule for reciprocation is a 2002 study of waiters at a restaurant in Ithaca, New York, which Cialdini cites in “Pre-Suasion.”
In the first of two experiments, some waiters handed customers the check and offered each one the opportunity to select a chocolate from a basket; others delivered the check alone. Waiters who handed out chocolate saw their tips go up by about 3%.
In a second experiment, some waiters invited customers to take two pieces of chocolate. Their tips went up by about 14%. Other waiters invited customers to take one piece of chocolate, turned to leave, then stopped and offered customers the chance to take a second piece of chocolate. In that case, their tips went up about 21%.
The researchers say the reciprocity rule explains their findings – people felt obligated to return the act of generosity. In “Pre-Suasion,” Cialdini explains that customers gave higher tips in the last condition because the second piece of chocolate was meaningful and unexpected.
Here’s an example of how you could put the rule into action: Let’s say you want a coworker to proofread a project report before you submit it to management. A few days before, consider asking that coworker if you can pick up dinner for her when you’re both staying late at the office.
The key part is reminding your coworker that she can return the favor, Cialdini told The Harvard Business Review in 2013. Instead of saying, “no big deal” when she thanks you for grabbing an extra sandwich, Cialdini recommends saying something like, “Of course; it’s what partners do for each other.”
This strategy takes a lot of the pressure out of asking for favors. Presumably, once you help someone out, you’ll feel like you deserve their help and won’t worry so much about annoying them. Meanwhile, they’ll probably feel like they owe you one and won’t think twice about giving you what you need.