For working mothers around the country, the circus of spring 2020 will return to make every day a juggling act of work, family, housework and homeschooling. Which makes it the perfect time to consider how to get the support and resources you need to succeed in all these arenas—or, at the very least, to find some degree of sanity along the way. So, what are the best, most natural, and most effective ways to ask for what you need, personally and professionally?
You’ve likely never seen “effective asker” listed on a resume or LinkedIn profile. Like many of the essential habits we count on throughout life, the ability to productively persuade another person, group, or organization to give you what you need or want is a skill often attributed to innate talent. It’s not something that we talk about nurturing in ourselves, despite the fact that a knack for asking—and receiving—is crucial to success whether you’re employed at a large company, trying to get a small business off the ground, working part time, parenting full time, negotiating for your first lease or trying to get your child the help they need at school. Right now, the ability to effectively ask is especially critical for mothers working from home while managing the demands of increased housework and parenting children who will be taking classes virtually this fall.
Unfortunately, the ability to request and receive what we need has long been a challenge for many women. Research shows that, by and large, women are less successful getting what they want and deserve after asking for it, whether they are negotiating for a raise or a promotion, haggling for a car, or looking for help on the home front. In some cases, studies show that women often don’t get what they want because they are less likely to ask for it. In other cases, we do negotiate but don’t do as well as men because social norms or gendered expectations negatively influence the outcomes.
This is where thinking differently about any request can help. It requires rethinking the act of asking to turn it into collaborative problem solving instead. By definition, working in groups to solve problems requires that someone be good at communicating, building relationships, thinking creatively and finding compromises—all skills that many women say come naturally to them. In essence, this makes women among the world’s best collaborative problem solvers. One 2017 study showed that 15-year-old girls around the world were 1.6 times more likely than boys to be rated “top performers” at the essential 21st-century skill.
Upon first glance, the innate ability to effectively solve problems in groups might seem unrelated to the “asking challenge” many working mothers face—until we consider how this skill is the ideal way to approach any personal or professional request and can help guarantee positive outcomes. It’s using your strengths to a competitive advantage when it comes to any ask or negotiation.
Every request has an underlying, often unspoken, goal that, when identified, can turn almost any demand from one where there is a clear “winner” and “loser” into one where everyone walks away feeling good. For social scientists, this is the difference between “positional bargaining” and “interest-based negotiations.” In the former, you ask for a defined thing—a “what” that needs to be fulfilled for you to be successful. In the latter, you’re more focused on the “why” or underlying reason for your request, which motivates you to work with another person to find a collaborative solution that meets everyone’s needs.
For example, consider working mothers who might be wondering how to balance working remotely with their children’s virtual schooling. When using positional bargaining strategies, you might ask for a more-flexible schedule. Depending on your job or industry, that might be a difficult request to grant—perhaps because the demands of customers or teams in different time zones constrain the hours you need to available. In other words, this might make for a difficult, contentious “ask” and result in little success.
But what if, instead, the same scenario was approached using an interest-based negotiation strategy? Then the original question becomes focused on the challenges of managing children’s remote school during the day instead of purely about scheduling. And the “ask” turns to a collaborative conversation where you and your manager discuss creative solutions to meet everyone’s needs. Perhaps it results in meetings starting and stopping at times other than the top of the hour to allow for “transition times” when your kids need help logging into class. Or maybe there is an out-of-the-box model of the weekly schedule that would accommodate your local school’s new hybrid school schedule? Or perhaps it inspires your company to consider reimbursing childcare costs to free up their employees?
It’s about rethinking your request in the same way that you would collaborate to solve any problem at work or at home—considering not just what you need but what the other person needs too, thinking about what creative solutions could help each party involved, and determining how best to work together to find an answer that fits not just the “ask” you have in mind but also that addresses whatever need is inspiring your request. This way we can each use our natural talents to ask for and receive the support and resources that are so crucial to every working mother’s success (and sanity).
Marisa Porges is a former U.S Naval Officer, senior advisor in the White House, and current head of The Baldwin School, renowned for academic excellence and for preparing girls to be leaders and change-makers. She is the author of What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women.