Learn with Lloyd!   

Small talk plays an important role in American culture, as we discussed in a recent post.  However, too much of a good thing can backfire: that is, produce the opposite of the intended (good) effect.  

When we have a special request or favor to ask of someone, starting with a little small talk is natural, but if we do NOT have a close personal relationship with that someone, it’s often useful to limit initial chitchat to 2-3 exchanges, and then introduce our request with minimal context … and ASK!

Let’s strategize about small talk first, and then the request.  Why strategize?  Because we’ll probably be a little nervous: asking for help from people outside our closest social circle can be psychologically demanding.  This isn’t something we do every day, so choosing the right words and the right way to say them can be challenging.  

If you intend to ask a favor of an acquaintance, associate, colleague, or anyone else who is NOT a close friend or relative — and especially if you haven’t spoken to this person in a long time — try to limit small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner keeps it going by asking YOU some questions).

This little bit of foresight may help you avoid a one-sided “exchange”:

A: Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  

B: [short response]

A: Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  

B: [short response]

A: So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  

B: [short response]

A: How’s your wife doing?  Is she still in the fashion industry?  

B: [short response]

A: Oh wow, that’s great!  And your parents — how are they doing? 

If you find yourself driving this kind of “interrogation,” cut it short: your partner will be relieved!  Notice this example includes a couple of “dead-end” yes/no questions likely to elicit yes- or no-only responses.  

But there’s an even more serious problem here: the question content may be unwelcome.  Your partner may not be in the mood right now to discuss work, wife, or parents — especially if your relationship is not close.  Imposing such questions could even affect how the other person responds to your eventual request.

Now let’s consider how you might structure your request.  Expect to feel a little anxious (it’s normal) and do your best to push through it.  Express your purpose in two very short parts — CONTEXT (essential background information, condensed into one sentence or phrase) and REQUEST:

CONTEXT: Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and … 

REQUEST: … I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about …

Note that the CONTEXT does not tell a long story.  Long-story-SHORTextremely short! — is our goal here.  

And notice the REQUEST features indirect words to soften its impact: 

I was wondering: common introductory softener; signals that a request (or other special/sensitive remark) is coming, alerting the listener to a “turn” in the conversational flow.

if I could ask you: “if” conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “I” asking, not the listener “you” giving (NOT: “if you could give me …”); this additional signal gently & politely announces, “Incoming question!”

any: meaning “any possible” or “if you happen to have any”; the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer, which lowers expectations and helps lighten a request.

might: conditional modal, with an implied if”: if you happen to have ideas, if you can think of anything spontaneously, if you would be willing to share your thoughts.

In most routine situations in the USA, you’ll probably receive warmer and more thoughtful responses to your requests if you limit small talk, get to your point relatively quickly, choose words that burden YOU instead of the other person, and soften your wording with a few “if”s, “might”s & “any”s!

An earlier version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.

Making “Yes” Easy

April 26, 2020

Learn with Lloyd!A simple technique in the art of persuasion is presenting your points or requests in small steps — manageable bits of information that your conversation/negotiation partner can readily agree with or easily say “yes” to.  Here’s an example of comments/questions designed to elicit a positive response, step by step:

Some of us in the office have recently gotten involved in helping the neighborhood around our building.  We’ve had a lot of fun doing things like A…, B…, and C…, and the response from the community has been great.  We were wondering if you might like to join us sometime.  [Hoped for response: Sure!]

Our next project is D…, and we’re going to start it this Saturday.  Would you be interested in working with us on Saturday?  [Hoped for response: Yes, that sounds interesting.]

We’re planning to meet in front of our building at 10 a.m.  Would you be available then?  [Hoped for response: Yes, I think so.]

Great!  See you then!  [Hoped for response: OK!]

* * *

We’ll examine the structure of these sentences in a moment, but first, look at this less effective approach, which  packs too much information into a single request and may be less appealing to the listener.   A quick, positive response is less likely here:

Several of us in the office are planning to do some volunteer work near our building this weekend.  Are you free this Saturday morning around 10?  [Possible response: Uh, I think I have something going on this Saturday; maybe another time.]

 * * *

Effective Persuasion — COMMENT + REQUEST Structure:

You can enhance your powers of persuasion by making it easy for the other person to say “yes.”  Below is an analysis of useful elements in the effective example at the beginning.  Notice the comment + request structure in each of the first three exchanges: instead of aiming a single question at a time, the speaker creates context with a comment and then follows it immediately with a short request (direct or implied).  Also notice how the comments get progressively narrower in scope.  Comment 1 begins with broad perspective and background information:

Comment 1: Some of us in the office have recently gotten involved in helping the neighborhood around our building.  We’ve had a lot of fun doing things like A…, B…, and C…, and the response from the community has been great.  [Introductory sentence provides background, context.  Second sentence emphasizes two positive points — “fun” and “great response” — while giving specific examples “A…, B…, and C…”]

Request 1: We were wondering if you might like to join us sometime.  [Phrased as a statement; “we were wondering if” and “might like to” are usefully indirect, conditional elements; “sometime” is usefully ambiguous, avoiding early mention of Saturdays/weekends.]

Comment 2: Our next project is D…, and we’re going to start it this Saturday.  [Offers specific description “D…”; full-day reference to “this Saturday” avoids early mention of morning start time.]

Request 2: Would you be interested in working with us on Saturday?  [Phrased as a question; “would” is a useful conditional; “interested in” focuses on the other person’s interest/feeling instead of requester’s need or demand.]

Comment 3: We’re planning to meet in front of our building at 10 a.m.  [Notice each comment is getting successively narrower.  Here the specific time “10 a.m.”  is introduced; this potentially unappealing detail is withheld until late in the conversation.]

Request 3: Would you be available then?  [Phrased as a question; “would” is a useful conditional; “available” is a relatively objective term focusing on the person’s schedule instead of any desire to get up early on Saturday!] 

* * *

Here are some more examples involving marketing or promotion of the speaker’s services:

Less effective — single question:
Can you give me your email address?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
I’d like to send you some information I think you’ll find interesting.
R: If you give me your email address, I’ll send it to you tomorrow.

Less effective — single question:
Can I send you some useful information about that?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
I have a short description of some ways you can avoid that problem.
R: I’d be happy to email it to you.*

*Sometimes a request is implied rather than stated.  With an inquiring tone of voice, an implied request can elicit a positive response, but if necessary, the speaker can add “if you’ll give me your address” (or even more directly: “Could I email it to you?”)

Less effective — single question:
Would you like to schedule a free initial consultation?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
What we normally do at this point is arrange a meeting to learn more about a client’s needs and determine whether our services are appropriate.  This initial consultation usually takes about 30-40 minutes; it’s free and there’s no obligation to begin a project.
R: Is there a day this week that might work for you?

Less effective — single question:
Could you refer me to other potential clients?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
We’re always looking for others who could benefit from our help.
R: Can you think of anyone you know who might be interested in our services?

Packaging your points as brief comments + requests can help you get more positive responses from people whose help you need or patronage you want.

* * * * *