We tend to think that when we ask for help, the other person says yes or no based on the relationship and the ask — whether they like us, how much time they have, how difficult the request is, how keen they are to look helpful. But recent science shows that while the who and the what of the ask matters, so does the how.
People find it more awkward to say no to someone’s face and are more likely to say yes when put on the spot. As a result, if you make the same request to the same person face-to-face compared with over email, you’re an incredible 34 times more likely to get a yes.
That is very handy to know if you really need some help. But the world has moved on since these studies. Thanks to tech progress and pandemic disruption, there are way more ways to reach out and ask for help these days. You could try Zoom, send a Loom video, hit someone up on Slack, or even reach for the good, old telephone.
How do these various ways of communicating impact your chances of getting a yes? A team of scientists recently conducted a series of experiments to find out.
Sorry Zoom, the best way to ask for help is still face to face.
The results were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science but if you’re curious, you can read the whole paper here. The researchers investigated two related questions. First, how do various communication channels — in person, over video, voice, text, asynchronous or not — impact how likely people are to say yes to a request? And second, how good are askers at predicting the impact of their chosen means of communication?
To figure this out the team recruited study subjects to ask five friends to help them complete a short proofreading task, via a range of possible communication mediums. Before reaching out, the participants also guessed how likely they were to get a yes. Follow-up studies asked people to read about others asking for favors in different ways and rate how likely they were to get a yes.
The bottom-line findings from all this were pretty simple. How you ask for help matters a lot, and people heavily underestimate how much of a difference their choice of communication medium makes. “Face to face was found to be significantly more effective than any of the other channels,” the authors write.
Participants guessed face-to-face would be better than voice calls or email, but they underestimated by how much. They also way overestimated how effective video calls would be for asking for help. “Although help-seekers expected asking via video channels to be as effective as asking in-person, face-to-face requests were significantly more effective,” the authors note.
The takeaway here is as simple as it is useful. Zoom seems like it might not be a bad way to ask for a favor, given the person has to look you in the eye while saying no, but as study co-author Vanessa Bohns put it, “If you really need a ‘yes,’ it’s best to ask in person.”