The value of asking

It’s worthwhile learning effective ways of asking for help, and to do more asking.

Asking has a bad reputation. There’s an old saying, “It is better to give than receive.” Research shows that helping others is a reliable way to increase your happiness, but the research says little about receiving help.

In some areas, asking has become associated with marketing. Advertisers in essence ask people to become customers. Politicians ask citizens to vote for them. Large charities use professional marketers to refine their pitches. In these arenas, people need to develop resistance to those seeking their money or support, and this resistance can rub off to become negative attitudes about asking.

In an illuminating book titled Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three types of people — givers, matchers and takers — in the context of US business. Givers help others without any expectation of receiving anything in return; matchers operate on a reciprocity basis; and takers accept help but don’t give anything in return. Most people are matchers.

The normal assumption is that givers won’t get ahead. Grant argues that they can, and offers many examples of highly successful givers in business. But not all givers get ahead, because they can be taken advantage of. Grant says givers can do very well when they also look out after their own needs. He calls these “otherish givers.”

“Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.” (p. 158)

Grant presents ideas via detailed stories of individuals who have a giver style. He uses the stories to make points, supplemented by descriptions of relevant research, of which there is quite a lot. Give and Take is a highly readable book, independently of the important messages conveyed.

Adam Grant


If you care about others, then you don’t want to be a taker. But there’s still a place for asking for help, according to Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do Is Ask, just published. Baker has worked closely with Grant, and like Grant focuses on US businesses.

Asking others for help can make a tremendous difference to your career and your life. You might save lots of time and money by getting a tip on how to improve, a contact to a lucrative venture, or information that can save a life.

One of the techniques used by both Grant and Baker is called a reciprocity ring. Bring together a group of maybe 20 people and invite each of them in turn to make a request about something, work-related or personal, on which they need help. The more diverse the group the better, because unexpected ideas and personal connections are more likely.

Posterboard for a reciprocity ring

When takers join reciprocity rings, the public nature of the process moderates their taker tendencies. Because they want to look good to the group, they can offer valuable assistance to others. This suggests that giving, matching and taking depend not just on personal characteristics but also on the circumstances.

Baker says some ways of asking are better than others. He recommends an approach with the acronym SMART: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound. He also gives advice on when and where to ask. He recommends accepting rejections gracefully, giving thanks for acceptances, and letting the other person know what happened in the aftermath.

Wayne Baker

I decided to examine this approach in light of a type of scholarly asking.

Checking citations

In writing an academic paper, authors usually cite various other publications. Some of these citations are important. Asking can be used to make them more accurate.

Scott Armstrong, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was co-author of a 1977 paper about correcting for nonresponse bias in survey research, and hundreds of other authors cited this paper. Years later, Armstrong collaborated with Malcolm Wright to examine some of these citations. They found that of 50 papers that cited Armstrong’s 1977 paper, only one reported its findings correctly.

J Scott Armstrong

Wright and Armstrong recommend that researchers contact authors whose work they cite, asking them whether the citation is correct. This is most important when your results and methods rely heavily on another’s work or where you discuss it extensively.

After reading Wright and Armstrong’s paper (and writing a commentary on it), I adopted their approach myself. When I’ve discussed an author’s work, usually I send a draft of what I’ve written to the author, asking whether I’ve cited it correctly. Sometimes this isn’t possible: the author is dead or otherwise uncontactable. But in many cases it’s possible. Here’s a typical but fictional email (adapted from an actual one) written to the author of The Definitive Investigator.

Thank you for your valuable study The Definitive Investigator. I’ve been working on a book titled Official Channels. In chapter 15, I’ve discussed and quoted from your book in a short section on investigating. Could you have a look (bottom of page 230 of the pdf or page 12 of chapter 15, or search for your name) and let me know if anything needs fixing? Comments most welcome on any other part of the chapter and book.

This was written before I read Baker’s book on asking. So let’s see how well I’ve followed his SMART approach.

  • Specific. My request is quite specific: it refers to a “short section,” with details of how to find it and what I’m asking.
  • Meaningful. I’m asking the author to check what I’ve written about their work. For most authors, this is very meaningful. In fact, it’s hard to resist looking at what someone else says about your work. I’ve known academics who, when looking at a new book in their field, turn first to the bibliography to see whether their own publications are cited.
  • Action-oriented. I’ve asked the author to check what I’ve written.
  • Realistic. My request is fairly small. It doesn’t take much time to check my text and write a short email in response. In my experience, most authors respond promptly and helpfully.
  • Time-bound. I didn’t satisfy this criterion: I should have given a time frame for replying. In practice, nearly all authors who respond do so within a day or two.

I find it rewarding to make small specific requests about citations. In most cases, authors say that what I’ve said about their work is fine, which is reassuring. In a few cases, they offer corrections, which are valuable in improving the accuracy of what I’ve written. As well, a few engage with the material and send me extensive comments, often including additional references. This is highly stimulating.

Malcolm Wright

I’ve told quite a few colleagues and correspondents about the benefits of seeking feedback about citations, but nearly all seem reluctant to use this method. This brings me back to Baker’s book. In it, he offers eight reasons why people don’t like making requests, and counters each one.  He writes,

“Asking for what we need doesn’t come easily for most of us. Asking is a behavior that must be learned. It requires three steps: determining your goals and needs, translating needs into well-formulated requests, and figuring out whom (and how) to ask.” (p. 85)

In relation to checking citations, Baker’s comments are spot on: scholars are reluctant to ask and need to learn how to do it. The three steps aren’t so hard in this case: improving the accuracy of writing is the goal, requests follow the SMART formula, and cited authors are the people contacted.

In other areas, determining your goals and needs may not be so easy. If you are feeling vaguely unhappy about the way things are going, what exactly is your goal? What do you ask? Who do you ask: a family member, a friend, a counsellor, a stranger? Here’s where Baker’s advice is again valuable. Asking requires skill, and as you obtain more experience you should get better at it. And you can learn from Baker’s book. Remember the title: All you have to do is ask.

Brian Martin