Ask For Nothing in Return – The Power of Asking 4/5

What if I told you that the most powerful way to get what you want is to not only give, but to also to ask for nothing in return?

Sounds crazy, right?

This is exactly what I have discovered to be true; to give and to ask for nothing in return is how to get everything you want.

For the past week, I have been on vacation visiting family in Florida. The other day, one of the kids took something back that they had given away and then one of the adults said, “Don’t be an Indian giver!”

“I haven’t heard that expression in a long time,” I remarked.

My wife, being British and of Indian descent, looked at me perturbed.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Well, first of all, it refers to ‘Native American’, not actual Indian,” I said. “but it’s something we said when we were kids. It was a playground insult that meant you took something back after giving it away.”

By the mid 90’s, the phrase ‘Indian giver’ had faded from my vocabulary, so I was curious to reflect on it through the lens of what I’d learned since then.

Obviously the phrase embodies the European explorers’ mistaken thinking that they were in India, but I had a sense something deeper about it didn’t fit for me either.

I remembered learning how the phrase had originated from cultural misunderstandings between the explorers and the natives they met. Lewis and Clark journaled about how ‘Indians’ would give a gift and then want something in return for that gift. They found this offensive, since for them ‘giving’ lived in a domain distinct from ‘trading’.

When the phrase ‘indian gift’ first appeared, it referred to a gift for which an equivalent reciprocation was expected. A century later however, ‘indian giver’ had come to mean giving something away and then demanding it back again.

The Europeans’ confusion occurred because they were seeing the indigenous people’s giving through the lens of their reality. Where they came from, there was ‘giving a gift’ (like a birthday or holiday gift) and there was ‘trade’ (which you did with money). The explorers didn’t have a framework in their mind for the kind of gift-giving they were experiencing with the people they met, so they couldn’t see what it actually was.

This is a great example of how the world we see is subject to our understanding.

When we, however, transcend the two boxes of ‘giving’ and ‘trading’ and are able to see a third and more nuanced way of being with people, our relating takes on more color and our ability to create gains more power.

What was missed by the European explorers was the nuance that the desire for reciprocation can exist simultaneously with freely giving a gift.

What made the ‘indigenous giving’ generous was not that the natives didn’t expect something in return, but that they were willing to give without first negotiating the supposed value and determining in advance what would be given in return.

The indigenous people’s willingness to give-first and trust that something of equal value would be given in return was invisible to the Europeans, but it was important and powerful. This wasn’t holiday gift-giving and this wasn’t trade; it was a hybrid.

When trade occurs after value has been negotiated, and when instruments are used that protect the parties from loss (i.e. like contracts or escrow accounts), something is exchanged, but there is also a cost to the human relationship.

(Incidentally, this is why I do not use written contracts with my coaching clients. I find that they abdicate our responsibility to create and maintain a powerful and trusting relationship. Each term we put on paper is a term that we need not hold between us. Considering how intimate our work is, and how foundational our relationship is to our work, such a deferment is for me unacceptable. I want everything held between us personally because this requires trust. The more trust we require the more trust we will create and the more trust we create, the more we can create together.)

Stripping trust from trade by negotiating and using financial instruments isn’t all bad. It certainly speeds things up and protects people from the inevitability of unscrupulous actors. However, it is useful to acknowledge there is a cost here too.

Some dwell on how trust has been strip-mined from our economic culture, however I see it as a powerful opportunity. If we are willing to be indigenous givers in the economy we have, then we can access a part of people that yearns for deeper trust. Accessing this part of people puts you ahead of everyone else they will meet.

How then, in our modern world, can one be an indigenous giver?

Let’s look a little deeper…

The power of the indigenous giver is in their willingness to risk while giving. When you give without negotiating or protecting yourself, you put yourself out there. In a sense, you are not just giving your product or service, you are also giving trust.

The way I choose to describe this is to say;

‘Give while asking for nothing in return’.

By this, I do not mean that you desire or expect nothing in return. You are welcome to want something in return for your gift. In fact, not asking for what you want in return is what makes the giving impactful. Your holding back is your willingness to risk and this willingness to risk is your giving of trust.

Asking for nothing in return also creates space for the other person to experience your gift and to feel into their own heart about what they would like to give back.

In 2012, the first TEDx talk I was asked to give was about this. For 18 minutes, I spoke how the most powerful human connection occurs when while on the outside it may look like trade is happening, on the inside (in your heart and mind), there is no trade happening at all. On the inside, there is only free giving without a need for anything in return.

When I shared this idea of ‘asking for nothing in return’ with someone I was coaching last week, they challenged me.

“Wait, but how do you get what you want then? I thought you were all about asking for what you want? Now you’re saying to not ask for what you want? And to ask for nothing in return!?”

“YES!” I responded excitedly.

When confronted with two ideas that feel true but contradictory, I know we have taken a giant step in the direction of a whole new way of seeing. The remaining work is for us to see the ideas not as contradictory, but as perfect paradoxical partners.

Asking for nothing in return does NOT mean that I don’t ask for what I want. It means simply that when I give, I do not taint that gift with a specific request for reciprocation. I do not attempt to determine for the other person the value of the gift. I allow them the space for that.

I just give. I give without asking for anything in return or – in other words – while asking for nothing in return.

Personally, I find ‘asking for nothing’ to be a more powerful reminder than ‘without asking for something’, because ‘asking for nothing’ is actionable whereas ‘without asking’ is not. Silently, or even aloud, I can literally ask to be given nothing in exchange for my giving. ‘Asking for nothing’ is a bold and direct reminder that brings my intention to life more effectively than ‘not asking’.

Here is the really crucial part however…

At the same time that I ask for nothing in return, I can also ask for exactly what I want.

To do this effectively, it must be clear that ‘asking for what you want’ and ‘asking for what you want in return’ are two very different things. While this difference can’t always be seen, it can always be felt.

To ‘ask for what you want in return’ comes from fear. It is an expression of your attachment and your lack of trust. It is you trying to protect yourself from an uncertain future.
To ‘ask for what you want’ comes from love. It is an expression of your desire. It is the true speaking of your infinite potential to create.
Let me give you a practical example.

In my business, I may give someone one hour, two hours or even more of my coaching for free. Before I do this, I tell them explicitly that there is no cost for the time we will spend together. At some point during our conversation however, I may also ask them to invest money in a coaching agreement. In this case, I am asking both for ‘exactly what I want’ and for ‘nothing in return’.

But how?

My ask for them to become a client is NOT because I have given them the gift of my time. My ask for them to become a client is held in my heart and mind as an entirely separate thread. It emerges independently from my desires to create with them and to create income for my family.

At the same time, I do welcome reciprocity for the gift of my free coaching. I love when people reciprocate by writing a testimony of how our conversation has impacted them. I love when they reciprocate with their own physical gifts, all of which sit on the bookshelf in my office. I love when people reciprocate by referring others to me. All of my desire for this reciprocation though exists in a separate plane from my desire for clients. I never ask for someone to become a client (or anything else) because of what I have done for them. I always ask for nothing in return when I give my coaching away for free.

If what I have shared here sounds like a distinction without a difference, still contradictory or just impossible, then I challenge that you aren’t seeing the nuance yet. I invite you to stay with the possibility that there is something more for you to see; that the way of the indigenous giver is not to be put in one of the two boxes of ‘trading’ or ‘giving’ and that one can ask for both what they want AND nothing in return.

Developing the capacity to live in both giving and trading simultaneously comes through a lot of honest internal reflection and, of course, practice.

I welcome you to practice asking for nothing in return while also asking for exactly what you want. Open yourself to the possibility that both can exist together.

As you develop a more nuanced way of being around giving and asking, your power to create will rise.


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