Don’t Ask, Don’t Get.

Marc Randolph
4 min readFeb 21, 2024

If you don’t have the courage to ask, the only answer you’ll get is “no.”

I once had an opposing lawyer make a ridiculous contract request; something that had not been in our handshake agreement. I pushed back, hard, and he just sheepishly looked at me, shrugged, and with a slight smile said, “Don’t ask? Don’t get!”

At the time, that infuriated me. But since then (this was nearly 20 years ago) I’ve mellowed, and I’ve now come to think that “don’t ask, don’t get” is some of the best advice you can get. Not just in business, but in life.

Too often, we’re afraid to open our mouths for fear that someone will get mad (like I did at that lawyer). Or that we’ll come off as greedy or unreasonable. But in my experience, this is the minority of cases. Far more frequently, I’ll get either an “OK” or a counteroffer that attempts to bridge the difference. At the very least, the other party is going to understand my motivations a little bit better.

If you follow me on LinkedIn, you might recognize this story, because I posted about it there about five months ago. But since then, I’ve realized that I left something important out. Yes, it’s critical to ask for what you want, but there’s also a right way and a wrong way to do it. That lawyer in the story? He was right to ask for what he wanted. But it’s hard for me to believe he couldn’t have come up with a different way to ask for it — one far less likely to get me so mad.

HOW you ask for something really matters, and it depends heavily on context. There are a lot of things you need to consider when deciding how to go about it: what you’re asking for, who you’re asking, your relationship with them, the power dynamic between you, and even your gender.

Asking something of your boss is obviously different than asking the same thing of someone who works for you. Asking for something that is crucial is different than asking for something that is optional. You must consider how much relationship capital you might be expending in ‘the ask’, and whether inadvertently angering someone (and potentially sinking the entire negotiation) is worth it.

Sometimes it won’t be possible to know how your request will be perceived. For instance, there’s plenty of research showing that a woman asking for something will often be perceived very differently from a man using the exact same language. Or as the cartoonist Judy Horacek put it: “What’s the difference between being assertive and being aggressive? Your gender.”

There’s a lot of truth in the old saw that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and regardless of your gender, using “weak” language when advocating for oneself can be more effective than coming on strong. The organizational psychologist Adam Grant pointed out in a recent opinion article that asking for things using disclaimers (“I might be wrong, but …”), hedges (“maybe”, “sort of”), and tag questions (“don’t you think?”) can be a strategic advantage. “Studies have shown that women who use “weak” language when they ask for raises are more likely to get them,” he points out. “It turns out that there is a difference between being assertive and being aggressive: one is advocating for what you want, the other is attacking others.”

In addition to being sensitive to whom we are asking, we need to be situationally aware as well. Hedging is great in some circumstances, but maybe less appropriate in others (“I’m no expert, but do you agree that the victim sort of appears to be losing a lot of blood? I’m thinking it might be a good idea to call 911. Wouldn’t you think?”). And there are plenty of situations where hedging could be perceived as evasive or even dishonest, and a more direct approach is appreciated. That old saw about honey and vinegar, in fact, isn’t quite accurate: there are plenty of insects that prefer the vinegar.

I guess the obvious takeaway is that what works for some of us may not be appropriate for all of us. So, a big part of being effective is finding your personal style. And another big part is being sensitive to the context and the person being asked.

There are a lot of variables to keep track of here, but there’s one certainty: you have to ask. So go ahead. Asking may not get you the answer you want. But if you don’t ask, the only answer you’ll ever get is “No.”

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Marc Randolph

Netflix Co-founder. Entrepreneur, Investor and Advisor