The Power of Asking for What You Want, According to a Psychologist

The Power of Asking for What You Want, According to a Psychologist , woman talking with megaphone
The Power of Asking for What You Want, According to a Psychologist , woman talking with megaphone

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Everyone has the power to get the things they want, according to Vanessa Bohns, Ph.D., a social psychologist, professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, and the author of You Have More Influence Than You Think (Buy It, $20, amazon.com). The trouble is, most people underestimate their abilities in surprising ways, her research shows. Here, Bohns tells how to build confidence and use it effectively.

Why do people tend to sell themselves short?

"My research, along with research by others, shows that we're underconfident when it comes to socializing with people or trying to influence them. One reason is that we tend to compare ourselves with the most social people we know of, like Instagram influencers, so of course we fall short. Another reason is that we're focused on our own foibles and insecurities, and we think people are paying way more attention to those things than they really are. That makes us feel less confident about ourselves.

"In fact, the effect we have on others is more positive than we realize. People like us more than we think they do. Psychologist Erica Booth by and her colleagues found that when we have a conversation with a stranger, we walk away from the interaction focusing on all the things we said wrong. We do a postmortem, and we're very hard on ourselves. But the other person isn't thinking that way at all. They're saying to themselves that it was a nice conversation. We end up missing how much the other person liked us and enjoyed the interaction.

"These new findings are important because there's a long history of research showing that we overestimate ourselves in all sorts of ways. But when it comes to our influence over others, we seem to underestimate ourselves." (Related: How to Overcome Social Anxiety, According to Experts)

You found that people are hesitant to ask for things, which is unfortunate because people are likely to give others what they want. Why the disconnect?

"In psychology, it's been documented that the negative looms larger than the positive. When something bad happens, we remember it because it's much more vivid than when something good happens. One rejection weighs on us, and we forget all the times people said yes. Asking becomes associated with rejection.

"The truth is, it's hard for people to say no to us. It's uncomfortable. Saying no means coming up with the right words to deny the request, or making an excuse. People often default to saying yes because it's easier. Also, others generally want to do things for us. It makes them feel good to help us out."

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What should people keep in mind when asking?

"Because we're underconfident about our influence and we fear rejection, we tend to ask for things in ineffective ways. For instance, we'll send an email instead of asking face-to-face because we think it will be easier to handle the rejection that way. Yet asking in person is much more effective. It's a lot harder for someone to tell you no when you're standing there in front of them. Also, too often we hint at things instead of being specific, and that doesn't get results. Ask directly for what you want." (Related: How I Learned to Ask for What I Want In Bed)

How can people use their newly discovered influence to strengthen their relationships?

"Our words have a lot of impact. But we don't see that. We'll feel gratitude for people, or notice something nice about them, like what they're wearing, yet we don't say anything. That's because, once again, we tend to be hard on ourselves. We think, It's going to be awkward when I tell them; I don't know what to say; it's going to seem weird; they won't care. But getting a compliment or a thank-you from someone means a lot. So speak up.

"After conducting this research, I make an effort to give compliments when I notice people doing something great, and I express my gratitude more often. It's rewarding to see how appreciative the other person is. It makes us both feel good and deepens our connection." (This TikTok trend of listing the things you love about people will give you all the feels.)

What do you most want people to know about the power they have?

"Others aren't judging us as harshly as we think. People like us more than we imagine and are happier to help us than we realize. And our words have a big impact. Speak up when it makes sense to do so, ask for what you want, and feel more confident in doing that.

"There are many tips and tricks out there for gaining influence, but it's simple. It's not about asking for something in the perfect way; it's about asking. It's not about saying things a certain way; it's about saying them, period."