The Power Of Asking


Kate Winslet–revolutionary road
Kate Winslet in the movie, Revolutionary Road.

The verb ‘to ask’ has two basic meanings: 1, to request an information by putting up a question; 2) to request that something happen. Women tend to ask a lot in meaning #1 and not enough in meaning #2.


A colleague and friend invited me recently to accompany him to coach an executive for a speech she’d be giving at a women’s network conference. As an expert in gender communication, I’d help the executive attune her remarks to women avid of inspiration from a woman leader.

Once in the conference room, an employee offered to get us some water or coffee. My friend let me speak first. And what did I do? I asked. I asked as in ‘Can I get a coffee, please?’ My friend, on the contrary, plainly said, “Coffee for me, please. No sugar, no milk. And a cup of water too, please.”

That was probably only a conversational habit, but it got me thinking. Because we know that when women have to negotiate their salaries, they don’t ask. Ask as in ‘I want to make x amount of money.’

And then I started to recall different scenarios in which I’d seen women asking in #1 style when they should’ve been asking in #2 style. When ordering food, “Can I get ABC?” When asking the bus driver to stop where they need to get off, “Could you stop at the corner of Y and Z, please?” When asking their kids to make their beds, “Can you make your bed, please?” And even when the words are not there, the question mark at the end of the sentence is–the infamous ‘uptalk.’

When I ask a question I get an answer. And the answer can very easily be “no.” No, you can’t get that food; no, I can’t stop there; no, I can’t make my bed.

Because women tend to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable, they avoid putting other people in the difficult position of denying their request–it’s easier to reply ‘no’ to a yes or no question than to deny a request.

When I request that something happen–as in way #2, I either get an action from the other person, or I don’t. But if my request is not fulfilled, the onus is on the other person, not on me. I’ve said what I wanted. Now, will you satisfy my need?

Needless to say, the requests have to be reasoned and reasonable. Is it reasonable to request that a kid make their bed? Yes. Is it reasonable to ask that the server get you the food you want–food that you’ll be paying for? Yes.

By asking for what you want #2-style you make sure you get what you want and not what someone else thinks that you deserve. You set your own agenda and start owning your life.

Asking for what you want also prepares you to say no to what you don’t want.

So, when you go to your salary negotiation and say that you want to make X amount of money, it’ll be up to the other person to either satisfy that request or not, but you’ve stated your want. You’ve set your boundaries.

You’ve positioned yourself in a place of power.


PS 1: Sometimes, #1 is the right way to ask because doing it the other way would be rude or improper, or too ‘authoritarian.’

PS 2: Women sometimes ask in way #2 and are picky about things that don’t matter much. This casts the image of neuroticism but not of power.

One comment

  1. Great points, Carolyn. While the way one asks is important–making the ask is equally important. It reminds me of the adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

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