The best way to learn how to ask is to think about consent and the other person. Do they want to be asked? What is it you’re asking and who are you asking for?
Do they want you to ask?
Obviously you won’t know if you don’t ask, but has this person given you any indication that they’d be interested in you asking them for something? Have they shown interest in you, or interest in them doing something with you? Were they chatting about doing something, or saying that they’d be hypothetically interested in doing ‘a thing’?
Like I say about chatting to someone without being a creep, do they want you to go over to them? Have they looked at you, smiled, turned towards you, beckoned you over? Have they shown you any interest whatsoever? How to ask also involves knowing when to ask.
It’s not usually a good idea to ask someone to do anything out of the blue because they will be surprised and might feel like they have to say yes. They might say ‘okay’ instinctively because they were surprised and then feel too guilty to say no later on. This person may also say ‘okay’ because they are scared of what will happen if they say ‘no’. I know that this is a tactic that pick up artists use, but that’s because they are awful people.
Also if you haven’t found out if someone is actually interested in being asked, then there is the big risk that they will just say no. If they do say no straight away then you might also feel quite stung by the rejection. You might not respond well to that rejection and behave like a fool (ie get angry, or say something nasty). So do yourself and the other person a favour, and look for clear signs that someone wants to be asked something.
Remember that power in relationships and in society generally, make it easier for some people to ask and be asked than others.
What are you asking for?
Make it clear what you are asking for. If you are asking someone to make a choice then it’s best to tell them as much as you can about what you are asking for and why. This is known as informed consent.
It wouldn’t be very consensual if you suggested doing something without telling them everything it might involve. Like is the plan to go to the pub for a quiet time with friends, or for a big night out involving a club? Or has a friend asked to do something with just you, or are they inviting other people too? Or are you going round to someone’s house to listen to music only for them to play Ed Sheeran all night.
Who are you asking for?
A classic mistake that people make when they are asking someone to do something is that they aren’t making it clear who this is for. Is this something:
- You want them to do for you, or
- For you to do for them, or
- For you to do together?
It’s okay for us to ask someone to do something for us and it’s okay for us to do something for someone else because someone has asked.
For example, if someone close to you looks like they might want a hug you could ask them if that was something that you could do for them. If you wanted a hug you could ask them if they could hug you. You could also ask each other whether you both wanted a hug. However, if you asked them if they wanted a hug, when it was actually you who wanted the hug, then you’ve made this about what you want while pretending it was what they wanted.
More than just two options
Consent is all about freedom to choose, so the best way to ask is to give as much freedom to choose as possible. A good starting point here is to ask a question that requires more than one of two options. So instead of ‘do you want to watch Queer Eye later’ you could say ‘what are your thoughts about watching something like Queer Eye later.’ Or ‘we could watch Queer Eye, or Porridge, or neither’ (tough choice, Justin is 43).
If we were asking someone for a hug we could say ‘what are your thoughts about having a hug’ or ‘how do you feel about a hug, or a cuddle, or me putting my hand on your shoulder’. Even better we could say ‘is there any kind of support that you might like right now? Like a hug, or a bar of chocolate, a cup of tea, a listening ear, or some space?’
If the options we give someone are ‘do you want this, or not want this’ then that’s not really giving them much freedom to choose. So you could aim for at least three possible choices of doing something as well as just not doing anything.
Only ask once
Once you’ve asked them for something that’s it, only ask them once. You can ask if they have any other questions, or any other information that might help them come to their decision, but once they have all of that give them space.
Don’t pester someone or nag someone into doing something. Obviously be polite and say please if you want to, but don’t say pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeae, or ‘I beg of you’.
Ideally we’d ask people questions in a way that we aren’t making them ‘yes or no’ answers (see above). But if someone does say ‘no’ to you, then you should listen, accept their decision and not try to change their mind. ‘Oh go on’, or ‘you know you want to’, or ‘can’t you do this one thing for me’, or ‘if you loved me you would’. No, no, no, NO.
But do ask
Asking someone to do something was already hard enough and then I go and make it harder by talking about consent. But if we don’t ask then we don’t get. The trick is to ask consensually so that people can really feel like they are making an active choice to do something.
Surely it’s also better for the ‘asker’ that the ‘asked’ is doing it because they are really into the idea, not because they think they should. So yes, I’ve made it harder for the ‘asker’, but also easier for the ‘asked’ (which is easier for the asker too).
Also I think the process of asking is important too. This is one of those things where the journey is at least as important as the destination I reckon. When you’re asking you’re increasing the chances of connection, joy, comfort, support, all the good stuff that we want from life. It’s about living our best possible lives (that are available to us).
You’re doing that for you but also the other person, even if they don’t want to do the thing that you want to do. If they are saying no to you, they are saying yes to them, which I think is a cosmic net gain. But even better would be to aim for a win win is when you are both able to say yes to a range of options. Thinking about consent when we’re asking makes it easier for us to get to that point.
© Justin Hancock, 2021.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here