Law 13: When Asking for Help Appeal to People’s Self-Interest Never To Their Mercy or Gratitude


If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to re­mind him of your past assistance and good deeds. He will find a way to ignore you. Instead, uncover some­thing in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him, and emphasize it out of all proportion. He will respond enthusiastically when he sees something to be gained for himself.

Self-Interest Is the Lever that Moves People

The art of asking people for help depends on your ability to understand the person you are dealing with, and to not confuse your needs with theirs. Know that even the most powerful person is locked inside needs of his own, and that if you make no appeal to his self-interest, he merely sees you as desperate or, at best, a waste of time.

What Not To Do When Making Your Appeal

1. Don’t bring up the past

Bringing up the past, rather good or bad, will not help you in your cause. The justice and nobility of your cause will not prevail. Not only is a man not obliged to be grateful, gratitude is often a terrible burden that he gladly discards. It is best to speak pragmatically to pragmatic people. People rarely act against their own interests.

Like in the case of the Corcyrans and the Corinthians who were at the brink of war with one another. They both wanted to win over the Athenians as an ally because to do so, would surely win the war. Both sides were to send representatives to plead their case to the Athenians. The Corcyra representative could only offer one thing and that was an alliance of mutual interests to create a formidable force that could intimidate the rival state of Sparta. The representative from Corinth only talked about their past relationship with Athens and went on to list the many services Corinth had performed for Athens, and the importance of showing gratitude to one’s friends.

Needless to say, The Athenians were offended by the Corinthian ambassador by his subtle way of asking them to feel guilty about past generosities. The Athenians could have cared less and allied with the Corcyrans.

2. Don’t Be Trapped In Your Own Wants and Desires

Do not start from the assumption that the people you are appealing to have a selfless interest in helping you. Don’t talk as if your needs matter to people—they probably could care less, especially referring to larger issues: a great cause, or grand emotions such as love and gratitude when simple, everyday realities would have much more appeal.

When the Dutch began to arrive in Japan in great numbers, Ieyasu, the Japanese emperor, was much relieved. He needed Europeans for their know-how in guns and navigation, and here at last were Europeans who cared nothing for spreading religion—the Dutch wanted only to trade. Ieyasu swiftly moved to evict the Portuguese who were desperately trying to convert the Japanese people to Catholicism. From then on, he would only deal with the practical-minded Dutch. Japan and Holland were vastly different cultures, but each shared a timeless and universal concern: self-interest.

3. Don’t confuse your needs with others

Once you make people see how you can in some way meet their needs or advance their cause, their resistance to your requests for help will magically fall away. At each step on the way to acquiring power, you must train yourself to think your way inside the other person’s mind, to see their needs and interests, to get rid of the screen of your own feelings that obscure the truth. Master this art and there will be no limits to what you can accomplish.

The Motivation is Superiority

Believe it, or not, there are people who are not motivated through cynical self-interests. These are people who thrive on opportunities to display their good heart. They prefer to be able to exercise charity, mercy, and justice, which are their ways of feeling superior to you:

Because of their superior position, if you ask this person for help, you emphasize their power and position. The only requirement from you is that all of

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