The key to success is asking for it

By Dr. Cindy McGovern

If I could travel through time back to the day I left my family’s Florida home to start the adventure that has become my life, I would say one thing, using just one word: Ask.

I would give my 18-year-old self permission to ask for what I want, even if others believed what I wanted was too much, or impossible, or bold or beyond what they would ever dream of asking for themselves.

I would assure myself that I deserve to have my dreams come true. I would allow myself to ignore the voices of people from my past who said to settle for what I already had, or for what I was offered, or for good enough.

If only my wise, 40-something self could have been there for that rising teenager. Oh, the places I would have gone. The successes I would have celebrated.

As luck—and hard work—would have it, I eventually figured out that the only way for me to get what I want, need and deserve is to ask for it. Sometimes, I have to ask myself—sell myself on it, really—if I have the courage or the gumption to ask for a raise, a promotion or even a side-dish substitution at a restaurant.

Southern women—at least in my family—are raised to be polite. Not to make waves. Not to stand out. Not to impose.

Not to ask.

But once I got the hang of it, I started asking, and not just for what I obviously was owed or reasonably could expect. I started asking for my shot at the stars.

First, I had to change my mindset. I had to convince—sell—myself that I deserved what I was asking for. I had to bore down deep and muster up the courage to confront those negative voices that told me I was fine right where I was and shouldn’t expect anything more.

I had to take an honest look at my life, my personality, my talents and my experience. Once I did, I got my epiphany. I do deserve it.

I also took a deep dive into why those beloved childhood friends and relatives told me my dreams were unrealistic—and why I still believed them.

And I realized that they didn’t believe their own dreams were possible so they were simply trying to tell it as they saw it for themselves. It had absolutely nothing to do with me.

I had to find my own voice—one that would replace the negative ones from my past. And then, I had to use that voice to speak up for myself.

I had to ask.

Getting there wasn’t automatic; that’s for sure. If I could go back and talk to teenage Cindy, here’s what I would tell her.

Face your fears

Like most people, I sometimes stayed stuck in the status quo because I was afraid to ask for more. And like most people, the top reason for that anxiety was my fear that the answer to my ask would be “no.” After all, the negative voices had been telling me since I was a kid that the answer would be “no.”

And many, many times, the answer was, indeed, “no.” Every time it was, though, I survived it. Nobody ever said, “No, and you’re fired because you had the audacity to ask.” Nobody ever warned me: “If you ask again, I’ll never speak to you.” Nobody ever threatened: “You’ll never get another chance.”

Most often, I got the opposite reaction. “No, but ask me again next quarter. I’ll reconsider if the business is doing better then.” Or, “No, we’ve already filled the position. But try again next time.” Or, “No, you’re not a great fit for this particular role. Have you considered this other one?”

The worst part of fearing the “no” is fearing the “no.” The actual “no” can be disappointing or even embarrassing, but it’s never as bad as you conjure it up to be beforehand.

My advice: Plan for the “no.” Plan your reaction. Plan to ask a second question. An example: You hear, “No, we don’t have any money to give you a raise.” Then, you say, “Can we come up with another way to compensate me for the extra work I’ve been doing? How about an extra week of vacation?”

Having a plan will ease you quickly into a positive reaction instead of a knee-jerk reaction. Expect a “yes,” but plan for a “no” so you can handle it gracefully, professionally and with gratitude for the person who at least took the time to consider your request.

Be polite

My Southern grandma—and probably yours, too—always reminded me that I would “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When it’s time to ask someone for a favor, that couldn’t be more true.

So I learned along the way that asking nicely gets me a much more favorable reaction than demanding. Smiling gets me farther than scowling or raising my voice. Softening my language gets me better results than words that can be misinterpreted as accusations.

An example: “Would it be possible for you to put me in a hotel room with a kitchenette—even though my company is only paying for a smaller room? Could you please see what you can do?” works better than, “I need a bigger room. Do whatever you need to do to make that happen.”

Consider every “ask” an invitation to another person to do you a favor, or to help you meet your goal. Most people will say “yes” to a kind request if they’re able to.

Make it a win-win

The easiest way to get people to do something for you is to do something for them.

Before you ask anyone for anything, consider what the other person might get out of saying “yes.”

The surest way to know what that something might be is to listen to the person talk.

So before you swoop into your boss’s office to ask for a raise, think about why that manager might be willing to pay you more? In what way have you earned your raise or will you earn it in the future? What problem could you solve for your boss if you were better compensated? Have a conversation about your value and your worth so your boss will feel good about granting your request.

Honestly, this is the best approach to any “ask.” Do you want your youngster to eat her broccoli? Entice her with the promise of her favorite game after lunch. Trying to convince a rental car agent to upgrade you to a nicer model? Let him know you recognize his authority to make decisions so he’ll feel validated after a long afternoon of being treated poorly by harried travelers.

What can you do for the person who might be in a position to do something for you? Figure that out, and then make the transaction mutually beneficial.

Everyone wins.

Simply ask

The fact is that if you don’t ask for what you want, you probably won’t get it. If you are brave enough to ask, your chances improve exponentially.

And that, dear teenage Cindy, is what I want you to know. Spread the word.

Dr. Cindy McGovern, CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting and Author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Every Job is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work