On Asking, Part 2 - How to Get What You Want

Posted by Carlton Galbreath on November 1, 2018
Carlton Galbreath


kindly brontosaurus

In our last blog post in this series on asking, Jess told the story of her own journey from being afraid to ask for what she wants, to feeling confident and free to ask for what she wants. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d highly encourage you do so, as I’ll be referencing it in my post today, which is all about how to ask for what you want. In this post, we will share:

  • The single most important thing you need to know about asking
  • The Two Rs - Two features that all good asks have in common
  • An exercise you can do today to improve your asking skills

The single most important thing you need to know about asking

As Jess mentioned at the end of her story, women are a whopping eight times less likely than men to negotiate their salaries. It’s important to note, however, that the study which uncovered that statistic was done among MBA graduates, so we suspect that the “asking gap” between men and women in general is even larger. Moreover, we know from experience that this gap is especially wide in medicine.

How do we know this, you ask? Well, when we started BBMD we interviewed as many women physicians as we could, and paid special attention to answers that got repeated. When we asked for women’s stories about getting their first jobs, over 90% of our interviewees failed to ask for anything other than what was offered. In addition, when we asked the question, “If you could give one piece of advice to all women physicians starting their job process, what would it be,” every single one of our experienced interviewees (defined by us as 10+yrs in practice), without exception, sent the following message: ASK AT ALL.

So we know that asking is hard, and rarely done by early-career women physicians. But why? Well, the reasons we’ve heard range from being so excited to have any offer that they just wanted to lock it down, to being afraid of upsetting someone, to not even thinking of asking for something more as a potential option, and many in between. The results, however, are all the same - less money, less time, less clinical support, fewer research dollars, and a lower quality of life. All disproportionately affecting women simply because they’re asking (at least 8x) less often. So the single most important thing you need to know about asking is to follow Nike’s advice and JUST DO IT!!! That’s the first step.

I’ve always found that saying, however motivating, to be overly pithy. That’s why for the rest of this post, we’re going back to school. I will be breaking down the common features that all good asks share, what we call in our curriculum the two Rs: reasonable and relational. In each of the two Rs, I will show a 101 example of the basics, a 201 example of how to do it effectively, and a 301 example of how to do it like an expert. Let’s dig in:

The First “R” - Reasonable

  • Asking 101: In the shoe store example that Jess opened with, her dad did a great job of asking for something at all - he embodied “Just Do It,” and asking for anything at all will get you a passing grade in “Asking 101.” His request itself, however, wasn’t very reasonable. He was at a retail establishment where they don’t negotiate prices. He was probably asking a cashier instead of a manager, and a BOGO deal is not a request that we can reasonably expect a cashier to have power to grant. Unsurprisingly, the result was that his ask did not work and he paid list price for both pairs of shoes.
  • Asking 201: When Jess and I were out on our first date, I asked the hostess for a better table. While not every patron at a restaurant does this, it’s certainly not uncommon or outside the scope of their standard operating procedures. The restaurant wasn’t packed, so it wouldn’t be much of an inconvenience to them. And the hostess is the exact correct person to make such a request of, given that she is in charge of seating guests. Unsurprisingly, the result was positive and we got a better table.
  • Asking 301: Jess is great under pressure - most of you reading this are as well, or you wouldn’t be in medicine. When Jess found herself surprise negotiating implant prices with her vendor, she responded positively to that pressure and ascended to Jedi-mind trick/expert level. What did she do that worked so well? If you go back and read her ask, you’ll notice that she didn’t actually ask for anything specific at all! She just said “Where do you have flexibility?” Non-specific asks, usually for information or flexibility, are the most powerful asks you can make. They’re especially important when you’re at an informational disadvantage, because they force your counterpart to provide information while they spare you from having to do so. If she’d asked for 10% off of everything, she might not have found out that the implants she used most often had 25% wiggle room, or that the sales team only has so much discount they can spread across a product line. The more information you have, the better your outcomes will be. Always. Even when you’re not at an informational disadvantage, this is a valuable tactic because it avoids any commitment from you while also showing curiosity about your counterpart’s situation, and everyone loves to feel understood. Which leads us into our next “R...”

The Second “R” - Relational

  • Asking 101: Returning to Jess’ shoe store example, I suspect that her dad got a passing grade in Asking 101 on this one. He’s an incredibly kind and thoughtful person so I can’t imagine he was mean, but I also suspect that he didn’t take the time to relate with the cashier before making his ask. Ask at all + avoid being rude = passing grade. However, your human counterpart is the single most important thing to focus on if you want to be effective with any ask. We know this because the world of “negotiation experts” got flipped on its head in 2016 when our favorite book on the topic, Never Split the Difference, got published. Long story short, Chris Voss, an FBI hostage negotiator with zero academic training in the topic, took a negotiating class at Harvard with a bunch of MBAs and JDs who were supposed to be the best in the world. He ran circles around them all by avoiding the numbers and focusing on the person, on the relationship
  • Asking 201: Again using our restaurant table upgrade as the 201 example, you’ll notice that I started that exchange by pleasantly bantering with the hostess, even though I didn’t know I’d be asking for anything. Making a genuine and positive human connection is always our first step. Then, when I did make an ask, I said “Is there any way we might be able to sit over there?” While it might not seem like much, there are a couple of key takeaways in that ask. Before diving into what went well, we need to notice what I didn’t do. I didn’t apologize. Most of us lean on the “sorry” crutch far too often when making asks, because it makes us feel more comfortable. However, people are used to hearing sorry when they’ve been wronged, so saying it to your counterpart kicks things off with a negative tone and a sense of loss. And we know from the behavioral economics concept of loss aversion that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, so we want to avoid feelings of loss at all cost. Saying sorry without having wronged someone also makes you look weak for no productive reason. Of course there are appropriate times to say sorry, but this topic could be an entire blog series in and of itself so we’ll leave that for another day. Instead, leading with “Is there any way...” (a) respects your counterpart’s power to grant or deny your request, (b) puts them in a problem-solving mindset, and (c) if stated in a soft, understanding tone, communicates that you have empathy for the situation you’ve put them in of potentially having to tell you no (something that most people actually don’t want to do).
  • Asking 301: Jess’ vendor ask was relational gold. Again, while what she said in the span of a couple of short sentences might not seem like a lot, its effect was enormous. She started by saying “I really love your products and believe that in many cases they’re clearly the best option.” Her use of a positive relational word like “love” gets the warm fuzzies going, and then by saying “clearly the best,” she sets a high standard for the vendor to live up to while also complimenting them (at the same time she’s maintaining her sense of honesty and doctorly precision with the “in many cases” - you don’t have to be disingenuous to be effective here). Next, she said, “but I simply won’t be able to buy from you at these prices.” The “but” signals to them that there’s something they need to do in order to maintain the positive relational state she created in her first statement - it’s a clear call to action that again gives them a standard to live up to, an occasion to which they can rise. Next, she takes ownership of the decision by saying “I” before her objection “simply won’t be able to buy from you at these prices.” This is essential because it takes the sting out of the statement and helps your counterpart save face. When Jess owned the decision that these prices wouldn’t work for her, it freed the vendor from having to get defensive over the myriad implications that would come with a sentence like “your prices are too high.” Say that, and the vendor’s mind immediately runs in a million negative directions at once - they might worry that you think they’re profiteering shysters, that you think they’re too dumb to price correctly, that you don’t like the sound of the salesman’s voice, or any myriad of criticisms in between. A simple “but” in Jess’ sentence ensured there’d be no ambiguity about what needs to be done, and a simple “I” ensured there’d be no miscommunication about who’s responsible (as well as no hurt feelings to overcome before getting back to the negotiation).

An exercise you can do today to improve your asking skills

As I write this post, Jess, myself, and a large caravan of women healthcare practitioners are getting ready to descend upon Dallas for the Girl Med Live 2018 conference. Most of us will be grabbing flights, renting cars, and staying at hotels over the next couple of days, and this exercise is perfect for those situations. It’s called the Kindly Brontosaurus - I recommend you read the original article and try it at least once because it works (and feel free to Tweet us @BossB_MD or drop a comment below to let us know how it goes)! Essentially, the method is a combination of:

  • Soft, empathetic tone (“kindly” - different from the harsh and demanding tone that people in the service industry are used to hearing when fielding requests)
  • Assertive but not aggressive body language (“brontosaurus” - lean forward and make eye contact so you don’t seem entirely powerless and are hard to ignore, yet stand at an angle to your counterpart so you’re not threatening, and smile and nod to communicate empathy + goodwill)
  • Persistently repeating a solution-focused, optimistic, and collaborative phrase like “I’m sure we can figure something out together” (don’t just repeat it word for word though - if you make small tweaks each time you can do at least three back-and-forths before things start to feel uncomfortable)

And with that, dear readers, I leave you to go enjoy a weekend of destroying both glass ceilings and plates of Texas barbecue. One of our coaches - Shawn Hay - will take us home in this series on “asking” next week with a post about his own journey and a method you can use to frame your professional asks in all kinds of situations.