We’re lost ’till we learn how to ask

We’re lost ’till we learn how to ask.

How often have you been in the situation where you want something, and you can’t muster the words, the energy, the courage or the gumption to just, well, ask?

For some of you, I expect your mind is scrolling back across the day or the week to assess how often this has happened to you lately.

For others, your confidence and sense of purpose probably means you’re thinking – I always ask for (and get) what I want. I’m just wired that way.

Regardless of our disposition, our experience in life and business or our self-image, this happens to us all. We’re lost in the asking.

And it probably happens more than we like to think.

In Thanks for the Feedback, a great book by Harvard Law profs and globe-trotting consultants Sheila Heen & Doug Stone, they lay out some of the reasons why we don’t ask, and what we do with what we get back when we – intentionally or unintentionally – ask.

If you’re as time-constrained as most of us, and don’t want to add to your pile of books-I-should-read-to-make-me-better-at-whatever, you can read an overview of the key aspects of the book in the Harvard Business Review. I’d still recommend the full book though if you can swing it.

I won’t attempt to review or summarize the book here, rather I’ll use it as a jumping-off point to whole idea of just asking; and asking about more than their main topic – feedback (although feedback comes in many forms).

What gets in the way of asking, anyway?

I’ll start with a few things, and you can add to the list from your own thoughts.

Pride. Fear. Worry. Insecurity. Overwhelm-edness. Lack of confidence. Inconsistency between head and heart.

I could come up with more, and I’m sure you will, but there is a clear, common theme here. These are all rooted in negativity. Or come, at least, from a place of “not”-ness. Risk aversion may be a way to put it that is cloaked in clear business-speak.

I had a conversation with a smart, funny, wonderful person the other day, and she and I talked about the idea of receiving feedback. In a context where that, in fact, should be valued, should be seen as improving the skill-set of the person in question, and providing overall better service to the end users.

In other words – part of the job, part of the expectation and part of what success looks like.

We were talking about how difficult it is to receive that feedback and not be – or be seen/perceived to be – in a defensive posture, even when you know, accept and fully subscribe to the above rationale for why it’s of such value.

As I reflected on it later, I wondered to myself if part of the equation is rooted in the old “where you stand depends on where you sit” aphorism.

In other words, if you are (or perceive you are) being evaluated at the invitation and initiation of others, you will almost certainly enter the refractory period that Heen & Stone talk about (19.5 minutes for women, 20.5 mins for men…take note!).

In which case, all bets are off. It’s like talking to a wall (or worse, maybe a wall that has the propensity to topple over and fall on you) for that ~20 mins.

So why not shift the impetus?

What if you are the one inviting the feedback? You are doing the asking.

It’s not just a power dynamic at play here. It’s not straight-up manipulation or turning of tables.

It’s about setting others, and ultimately yourself, up for success.

After all, what kind of manager wants to be known as defensive and closed? Who wants to have a reputation as being as liable to bite someone’s proverbial head off as look them in the eye?

This doesn’t have to be an out-loud kind of thing. In fact, if you look at a Stages of Change model you’ll remind yourself that big leaps of change are the elastics that snap back hardest, fastest and with the most collateral damage.

So start small.

When you know you’re in a position where asking (for feedback, help, guidance; whatever) will benefit you — or where you are going into a meeting where your initiative, project, idea or remit will be evaluated, checked-up on, etc — start by quietly (in your own head if necessary) giving them permission. Tell yourself that you are inviting and asking for whatever it is. Be open to hearing it, and to whatever the consequences of that are.

Then maybe you’ll progress to walking into the meeting and literally asking them for the feedback out loud at some time down the road.

And lest you think this is all soft-skill, human interest stuff without a practical application, consider it from this perspective.

You’re party A in a negotiation. You’ve done your negotiation worksheet, determined your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) and taken your best shot at determining theirs, and identified the ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement).

You’re ready. Ready to win. Ready to mop the floor with party B. Ready to check off all your must haves and a few of the nice-to-haves, too.

What if you walked in and started by asking?

Asking them a question like: “What does success look like to you?” Or, “What would your board value most from this transaction?”

You’ll very likely catch them off-guard. You’ll undoubtedly gain insight – even, or perhaps especially, from what they don’t say. And I guarantee you’ll improve your negotiating position (and, if you can execute as well as you can plan, your end result, too).

There’s power in asking. And asking is empowering.

So go ahead, what’s stopping you? Just ask.


Those of you with a keen musical ear may notice that these lyrics are also borrowed from Snow Patrol. The song is “In the end”, off the Fallen Empires Album. The full lyric in question is “We’re lost ‘till we learn how to ask. (repeat). So please, please, just ask.” It’s chock-full of interesting lyrics that resonate with me. To hear the full song, you can have a listen.