How to Ask with Grace and Strength

I just finished Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and I love it.

I don’t know a thing about her music, her eyebrows offend my aesthetics, and her lifestyle would be enough to give me a nervous breakdown, but I will love her forever for this beautiful book.

(Also, her account of Neil Gaiman falling in love with her is the most tender thing I have ever read.)

The Art of Asking, in case you weren’t around when it was ridiculously (and, apparently, legitimately) hyped, is about a way of life that involves more asking, more sharing, and ultimately, more connection.

I know, it sounds terribly woo, that’s why I thought I would never read it.

One thing Palmer says is that after her TED talk, thousands of people over the years have come up to her and told her that they were bad at asking for help.

Amanda herself, titular Queen of Asking, is bad at asking for help too, when it really matters to her. The book opens on the day of her wedding to Gaiman, needing a bridge loan to pay her staff until the next tour begins, and not being able to bring herself to ask her husband, who wants more than anything, to help.

There are many non-intuitive things in this book that Palmer has given me anecdotes to share in the future, things I’ve figured out on my own and practiced myself.

For instance— asking for a small favor is a great way to start or cement a friendship. Even a large favor works, if you have the cajones to ask.

It works for a few reasons.

  • The first is that giving makes people feel so ridiculously good, it’s like you’re doing them the favor.
  • The second is that it ratchets up empathy— everyone hates asking for help, right? So when you take that step, make yourself vulnerable, peoples’ heart goes out to you. Then that empathy triggers connection.
  • And the third reason is plain old social psychology. Subconsciously, the fact that they did you a favor means you deserved it, and if you deserved it, you must be Good People.

What if I’m asking too much?

This has always been hard for me to express, because when you mention the concept, people can immediately recall someone who asked for favors TOO MUCH. Favors that were out of proportion to the situation, that they couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill, people without the social grace to leave them an ‘out.’ You know. THOSE PEOPLE.

Palmer weaves anecdotes that illustrate the difference throughout the book. When she was in her early 20s, she busked as one of those “living statues.” Later on, she shared the experience on her blog and one commenter said that he didn’t mind giving money to buskers, but not to beggars. In his mind (and in the minds of most of the comment section) there was a big difference between ASKING and BEGGING.

Palmer believes that the difference comes down to the sense of exchanging value. When paying buskers, you are thanking them for your entertainment. When paying homeless people, don’t have an exchange of value. If you give them money, it is because you’re seeking to alleviate their misfortune— an object that is cheated when “fake beggars” set up shop. That’s why people find the practice so outrageous.

Asking is a kindness.

Later on, she talks about her friend Anthony, a professional therapist, who then falls gravely ill. Not only does she continue her practice of laying her problems at his feet (her words), Gaiman also falls into the same habit.

In general terms, this is an unkind act. This poor man is sick! Give him a break! But in fact, it is a thing he loves to do, and practically the only act of service he can offer, sick as he is. So continuing to make these asks is in fact the kindest thing she can do.

[Tweet “It’s hard to ask. But it’s very rewarding. It forges connections, it strengthens bonds”]

We like to do things for those we love. Many people strive to be stoic and independent and not rely on others, but in doing so, you rob people of the opportunity to show their love for you in a tangible way. This is not just your family members, but your friends and perhaps your audience too.

This all makes sense so far, right? I haven’t lost anybody, have I?

And yet, in practice, this can be terribly, terribly difficult.

Three ways that I’ve seen this play out:

  1. I don’t know what to ask for. This is most common for grief and depression, but it happens pretty regularly to me during times of general overwhelm. I don’t know what to ask for, because what I’m essentially wanting is the situation not to be as it is. Or at least for me to get some space to breathe. And no, I don’t even have the wherewithal to explain all this. (After someone experiences a loss, you’re supposed to figure out things to do for them without them having to figure it out, and so the onus is always on the person who wants to help.)
  2. I can’t ask yet, I’m not desperate enough yet. This is just poor strategy! Desperation may force unwilling help, not the cheerful aid that would most salve your dignity. Not to mention, you’ve suffered needlessly for a long time before reaching the arbitrary definition of “desperate enough.” Start asking as soon as you think you know what would make things easier, but leave it open-ended and provide a graceful exit for your asker. This usually involves laying out the details of the situation and asking the other person if they have any ideas. You can ask for a specific type of help if you’re short on time (or you need something simple like a ride home from the dentist after a root canal.)
  3. I asked. That person said No. I was stupid and wrong to ask and I’ll never make THAT mistake again. This is like walking into the casino, going up to the roulette wheel, and putting your life’s savings on red 36. You put it all on one roll of the dice, and you hadn’t even been in training!

It’s hard to ask. But it’s very rewarding. It forges connections, it strengthens bonds.

And it’s the type of soft skill that it’s very good to be good at. You want to be graceful. I hate to ask, or at least some part of me does.

But another part of me knows that an ungracious ask is kind of the worst of both worlds. So if I’m going to ask (and I’m going to, because I want the benefits that come with it), I’m also going to be gracious about it.

  • Whether the ask is big or small, put yourself in their shoes. Does it delight YOU to be asked for a testimonial? Then you can probably assume that most people also like that their opinion is valued, so stop whinging about what an imposition it might be!
  • Leave a graceful out. Some people find it impossible to say ‘no’ to requests, and while their lack of boundaries isn’t really your problem, it’s not good karma, so make sure there’s some sort of graceful modifier that lets them know that it’s not a big deal to turn you down.
  • Be open to possibility— sometimes you’ll ask one thing and get a counteroffer. You can assume that this is what that person really wants to give, so if you like it, TAKE IT. But if it doesn’t work for you, be gracious in your thanks.

Ultimately, asking comes from a position of strength, because it shows that you have the fortitude to be vulnerable. And it’s a muscle that anyone can strengthen.