Book Review: The Art of Asking
When building communities - or any relationships, for that matter - the asking is the hardest part.
Think about the last time you asked for a favor from someone. Maybe you needed a contribution on a Facebook Group post or feedback from a peer on a proposal you were writing.
Did you sit on the message for a few minutes, wondering if you had phrased the ask correctly in a way that would elicit help from the person without feeling like you were begging? Did you add the words "Just wondering if maybe you could..." and then feel weak and delete them?
But, the truth is, I think any other kind of response may be bordering on sociopathy. Asking is vulnerability in verbal form.
But there is this major caveat: We must face this fear and do it anyway. Because asking is absolutely essential to building lasting communities. It means there is a two-way interchange. It means you can listen and receive. This is the heart of building a meaningful community.
The Essential Human Need
This is exactly what Amanda Palmer's book, The Art of Asking, addresses and helps us learn how to do.
Palmer writes that the most essential of human longings is the longing to be seen and believed. This, I too believe, is our most essential longing and the thing that can save lives and connect us all.
We are all calling out, whether explicitly or with our actions and demeanor: "Please. Believe Me. I'm Real." This is the very original ask, to be seen. And it is what we, as community builders, can build at scale. We can create a space where people can bring parts of their identities (or whole complex identities, depending on the safety of the space created) and be seen by others. But in order to do so, we must ask first. Ask for permission. Ask for buy-in. Ask for trust. Ask for help. Asking never stops. When it does, so too does community.
Importantly, we as community builders need to learn not only how to ask, but also to receive with graciousness and paying it forward. When people give to us with generosity and we receive with abundance, we are giving them a chance to be seen just as much as we are being seen for asking.
Communities are two-way (or multi-way) interchanges, both between you the organizer and between all your members. Asking is what levels the playing field for us all and manifests your trust in your community. And this is also the commitment curve in action: small asks over time create trust, which builds resiliency, which allows members to build confidence in collective action, which changes the entire world.
It occurs to me that one of my favorite Seattle community builders, Megan McNally, says at the start of every single one of her F Bomb Breakfast Club meetings, in so many words: those who get the most out of the group are those who give to the group and share their resources. Give. Connect.
But also, when the time comes, receive.
We don't often talk about gracious receiving, but this is where the magic happens. Simultaneously while you build your community, you should be able to hold your arms wide open and fall backwards into a crowd of supporters, and they should be strong enough to carry you. You must believe that they're strong enough to carry you.
Many of us think our members need our "help", need "support". We don't trust them. They are Other. We have the answers, we think. But why on earth should they trust us if we think we're stronger than them? We are not.
I don't think many of us know how to receive the gift that comes with a strong community. And yet it is what we are most longing for.
Prepare the Ground for Community Building: Ask Early and Often
In a tactical sense, the biggest takeaway for community builders from the entire book was that you need to ask all the time, not just when you desperately need something. You must prime your community for the asking. Otherwise you probably don’t even have a community to ask in the first place.
As Palmer describes it:
"All asking works like this. You must prepare the ground. If you're going to be asking one day, you need someone to ask who is going to answer the call. So you tend to your relationships on a nonstop basis, you abide by the slow, ongoing task, going out there like a faithful farmer, landing on the unseeable bamboo shoot. And then, when it is time -- whether you're asking a bunch of people to preorder your album, or asking one person to hold back your hair while puking -- someone will be there for you."
This week alone, for Gather and for my passion project business and dog community (The Everydog), I asked for the following:
- A testimonial for my website from an important Seattle businesslady who I worked with recently
- Someone to tell me a story about their dog and send me photos for The Everydog's Instagram (my side passion project)
- 5 animal dermatologists to get on the phone with me and tell me about their work
- A local founder for help with assessing my business plan
Every time, people surprise me. And sometimes they don't. But I will pay it forward, in some way. I'll also write them thank you cards and give them hugs, something that doesn't feel too transactional. And I'll keep being surprised as a result.
Community Building Is a Risky Endeavor
"Risk is the core cost of human connection," writes Palmer. When we ask for nothing, we get nothing. When we ask for something, the world at least has the chance to step up and deliver. Sometimes it doesn't and that needs to be okay too.
All those asks this week did not result in successful answers. Some did and made me very happy. Others didn't, and I kept on moving. This is hard if I dwell on it, but easy if I focus on all the good and let the neutral go.
If it wasn't okay that people didn't respond, that would be coercive and dictatorial, the antithesis of creative and confident community building. The opposite of what anyone would ever want to participate in themselves.
Palmer gives the example of Walt Ribeiro, a composer on YouTube whose Kickstarter project only received $132 of a $7,000 goal. The reason? "He hadn't cultivated a long-term relationship with them, he hadn't built a bridge of exchange between himself and his potential supporters. There isn't always a crowd from which you can fund. Sometimes you just don't know until you jump."
We must ask before we need something. Otherwise, it's too late.
What Can Brand Communities Learn From The Art of Asking?
Here are three quick takeaways if you're in a rush.
- You need to ask early and often for help of any sort. This is uncomfortable, but it is the "bridge of exchange" being built in action.
- For brands, you must authentically communicate these asks by having a person do the asking, not a robot or an automated email or a generic Twitter account. A person.
- Asking does not make you as a brand weak. It only communicates to your existing or future community that you respect their gifts enough to ask for them.
Now my ask for you today is: Can you go out and ask for something after reading this? And then receive it with a gracious thank you? You will have paid it forward by doing so.