On Invitations and Asks

I want to draw a distinction between two types of requests that one person may make to another person or to a group. Suppose a friend texts you and asks, “can you call me after dinner?” It can be hard to interpret this request. Is the friend having a really bad day and needs to talk to you so they can let out their emotions to someone they trust? Or do they want to chat with you because they’re bored and haven’t seen you recently? If you have a lot of work to do tonight, you might not want to chat in the latter case, but of course you would make time for them if the former case were true. I would like to share the way I go about making this distinction clear.

When I don’t need someone to do something, I like to use the phrase, “I invite you to…” or “this is an invitation.” The word invitation is the basis for a practice called invitational theory1. Making an invitation means that I hold no expectation that the other person will accept it. It is a gift of an opportunity: I am offering it because I believe the other person may enjoy or benefit from it, but if the person being invited doesn’t think so they can decline it and nothing is lost. When I offer someone an invitation, I am also making a commitment that I will not feel let down or unhappy in any way as a result of their decision (this commitment sometimes takes active effort to keep, but it is the most sacred tenet of a true invitation). Most of the requests I make to people at Olin are invitations.

When I need something—for my mental health, to meet a commitment, or to enable me to do something important—I try to use the phrase “I need…” or “this is a hard ask right now.” Here, it is clear what I am requesting, and I don’t risk not getting what I need as the result of a miscommunication. It can be difficult to use direct language like this, especially if I feel like I am burdening someone, or if I’m not sure they will be able to help and I worry I will make them feel bad because of that. But if I have decided that I need something, it is always worth making a clear ask. Even if they can’t help directly, the person I’m asking might come up with an alternative way to fulfill the need.

As for the feeling of burdening another person, I recently learned the maxim “burden me and I’ll burden you.” When I make an ask of someone, I am also committing that I will be there when they make an ask to me in the future. To ask someone to help me without the expectation of reciprocity is rude and goes against human nature. Being there for someone else in a time of need can be a transformative experience for both people and can strengthen relationships. And the person giving the help will have someone else they can turn to the next time they need something.

I hope this article helped you consider the difference between an invitation and an ask so you can clearly communicate when you make a request to another person. I hope it also helps distinguish between invitations and asks you receive from other people, and if it’s unclear, to seek clarification: “is this an invitation or an ask?” Finally, I hope it relieves some stress from making a difficult ask because it can actually deepen relationships, it creates an offer of reciprocity, and it is one of the things that truly makes us human. I invite you to trust in the kindness of others and to communicate your needs and wants clearly.

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