Need a favor? Here's how to ask that researchers say will get you a 'yes' answer

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SALT LAKE CITY — Ever needed a little assist from a friend or co-worker, but you weren't exactly sure how to ask for it? Many of us might be running overloaded these days, so we might rely on others to help us out every now and then.

Researchers at Cornell University say they found the best way to get a "yes" when we ask for a favor.

When you need a favor, it is pretty easy to fire off a quick text or an email. But it turns out, those are not necessarily the most effective ways to ask.

"When we asked them whether they thought email would be more effective or in person would be more effective, they thought all these ways of asking would be pretty much similarly effective — that there wouldn't be a big difference," said Vanessa Bohns, an organizational behavior professor at Cornell and author of "You Have More Influence Than You Think," about her studies.

But there is a huge difference in results among the various methods.

Whether you need help putting together furniture with some Swedish name you can't pronounce, or asking the neighbor to look after Fido for a couple days, or any favor: "In person is by far the most effective way to ask," Bohns said.

She and her colleagues asked more than 400 people to each ask five friends to proofread a one-page essay for them. Fifty-five percent of those who were asked either by phone or video chat agreed. The success rate of e-mail is much worse at 30%. But 80% of those asked to proofread in-person said "yes."

"So, when you ask a person ... you see the other person's face, you have to say no to them by looking them in the eye, and that's really hard to do," Bohns explained. "You also have to answer in real time often, so you have to come up with the words to say 'no.' And you can't take the time to think about what you might want to say."

She said it doesn't make much difference in what the favor is, because most people really are not doing any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

"They're kind of just responding emotionally in the moment to you and whether they trust you and whether they can say yes and no to you or not."

Asking over email or text gives people all the time in the world to say no.

"They can come up with the perfect words to say no, and they can even just ignore your email if they really want to," Bohns said. "Over the phone, you don't have to look someone in the eye. You still have this sort of distance."

But asking in person may not always be the right answer. In some situations, your friend or co-worker might feel coerced into saying yes if you are expecting an answer right there on the spot. So, if you do not want to alienate that person, an email or phone-call may be better options. Though they are less effective, they might dial back the pressure on your friends.

"If you want them to answer genuinely," said Bohns, "And if you don't want them to say yes and then regret it after the fact."

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Matt Gephardt
Matt Gephardt has worked in television news for more than 20 years, and as a reporter since 2010. He is now a consumer investigative reporter for KSL TV. You can find Matt on Twitter at @KSLmatt or email him at
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