Negotiation Research: Looking for a Favor? Ask in Person

By on / Negotiation Skills

Imagine that you are about to ask someone for something. Maybe you’re trying to initiate a negotiation by asking a potential customer to listen to your proposal. Or you could be making a one-off request, such as asking a neighbor to quiet his barking dog. How likely do you think it is that the other party will comply with your request?

In fact, the odds someone will comply with our requests when we approach them in person are much better than we tend to believe. Considerable recent research demonstrates that we greatly underestimate the likelihood that others will say yes to our “asks.” Why? Because we fail to adequately take our counterpart’s perspective. Specifically, we don’t imagine how potentially awkward and uncomfortable it might be for someone to say no right to our face, and how bad it might make him feel to let us down.

If we underestimate the success of our face-to-face persuasion efforts, what about the requests we frequently make via email—for a charitable donation, a meeting with a potential mentor, and so on? How likely do we think our email requests are to succeed, and how accurate are our perceptions?

To answer these questions, researchers M. Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University in Ontario and Vanessa K. Bohns of Cornell University had hundreds of university students approach strangers either in person or via email and make a request. In one of the experiments, for example, each student was assigned to ask 10 strangers either on campus or via email to complete a 44-item personality test for no reward. When asked to predict in advance how many of the 10 people they approached or emailed would comply with this request, the students in both conditions predicted that about half of them would. As in past studies, this was an underestimation for in-person requests; about 7 out of 10 people they approached in person complied, on average. But for emailed requests, this was a vast overestimation: Most requesters did not get even one response from their 10 requests. The researchers found similar evidence of overestimation of email responses to requests in a second experiment.

The implications of the findings are clear: Although it’s easy and more comfortable to ask for favors via email, it’s even easier for targets to press delete. We are far more likely to get their attention and compliance if we seek them out in person.

Resource: “Ask in Person: You’re Less Persuasive Than You Think over Email,” by M. Mahdi Roghanizad and Vanessa K. Bohns, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2017.

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