Asking for help

Knowing that asking for help is probably a viable solution is not always reason enough to ask for help. Asking for help can save time and allow us to practice being courageous, foster social connections, and become healthier people. It also gives everyone involved the chance to boost their overall well-being. The fact of the matter is we are accompanied on our journey through life by an invaluable army of helpers – nurses and doctors, teachers and schoolmates, coaches and teammates, friends and family… not to mention colleagues, mentors and managers. In reality, nobody makes it on their own and nor should we expect to. Then, why is it so difficult sometimes to walk up to a colleague and say „I need your help with something“?

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The pros and cons of self-reliance

As children, trial and error teaches us we need help, and sometimes we notice that the kids who do really well, are the ones openly asking for help. This is a lesson we sometimes ‚unlearn‘ upon reaching adulthood. The quest to become fully-fledged, self-reliant individuals can mean going too far in the opposite direction. We live in an age where user-friendly, DIY solutions are designed to enable and promote our autonomy. And if you don’t know how to do something there are plenty of videos you can watch online without having to actually bother anybody IRL.

We often find that asking people for help is a bit embarrassing, and comes with feelings of vulnerability. Why not just bypass it completely and work things out for yourself? But what’s missing from this picture? In short, the voice of experience, and the immediate feedback you get from trying something out while your helper watches. The timely suggestions, advice on what to avoid and how, the tips and tweaks that save you precious time and effort. Someone maybe even showing you first-hand what you need to do to get the result you want.

Writing this, I’m thinking about the 10 minutes today my colleague spent helping me navigate a new process. It was nothing exciting, but her patient guidance gave me a sense of reassurance that is invaluable. And now I can do something with confidence, that before I was a little nervous about. But still I thought twice before I called her for assistance, worried she might not have time for me.

Research costs time – why not just ask?

The thing is, in the workplace, not asking for help costs time and money, and can hinder us all in learning and in taking action. Being able to move fast may mean the difference between winning or losing a contract. That speed also relates to communication. Second-guessing about getting help slows you down. Typically, as a manager when I frequently set tasks for members of my team. If they have a gap in their knowledge, I expect them to quickly learn what they need to, and get the job done. Why spend valuable time researching when they could just ask a colleague? Knowing all this, why are we collectively still hung up on asking for help?

Here are some theories that I came across while researching this post:

Theory 1: I’m a macho girl in a macho world?

Asking for help means there is a gap in one’s knowledge or competence, a weakness, a flaw, a need, a vulnerability. Feeling vulnerable (and admitting it) feels like a small bird flapping in my rib cage. Who seriously wants to engage with that sensation? If we dig into it though, research shows that not only is it untrue that asking for help makes you appear incompetent, but in some cases asking for help with a difficult task actually results in higher perceived competence. In other words, we are far less likely to be judged negatively for admitting our weaknesses than we think. I know many parents who continually reinforce this to their children, but as adults we perhaps fail to recognise its validity for ourselves. Because feeling vulnerable is difficult, and it’s connected to shame. Shame tells us we are not good enough, and that if others discover this we will simply never recover. Here’s the thing though – for us to connect with other people, we need to be seen (and accepted). And as humans we are hard-wired to connect to others, because on a fundamental level it gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Brené Brown’s research into vulnerability turned her world upside-down, and in the process she identified a whole cohort of people whom she categorised as ‚wholehearted‘. These are people who have a strong sense of love and belonging, and, crucially, who believe they are worthy of love and belonging. In other words, they feel a tremendous connection with others, and are rarely plagued by shame. Maybe you know someone like this, or maybe you are this person. When she delved into what these people all had in common, she discovered 4 attributes they displayed:

  1. Courage (to be imperfect)
  2. Compassion (to be kind to oneself, and thus to others)
  3. Connection (to let go of expectations about who they should be, and to just be who they are)
  4. Vulnerability (asking for help, initiating a relationship, putting yourself out there)

What she discovered is that to become one of these wholehearted people, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable at times. In order to reap the benefits that come with belonging and acceptance, we must make space for a little discomfort in our lives. Side note: current research also shows that the impacts of loneliness on one’s health can amount to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Avoiding connecting with people is really not good for us! So while I might pride myself on being a tough, self-reliant cookie – maybe in truth it’s time to ask myself if I wouldn’t rather be a wholehearted girl, in a wholehearted world?

Theory 2: Rejection hurts – but just ask and you shall receive (in abundance)

The other day I fired off a request for a recommendation for my LinkedIn profile to a colleague I’ve known for about 10 years. As my finger hovered over the ’send‘ button various thoughts passed through my mind: he’s too busy, maybe he doesn’t feel like he knows me well enough, maybe he’ll say no. Guess what – today his recommendation came through. Not only did he have time, and know me well enough to write a few sentences, but what he wrote was amazing, thoughtful, and authentic. This is not the exception; rather this demonstrates the rule.

The fear of rejection is disproportionate to how often rejection actually occurs

Research shows that we regularly underestimate both how willing people are to help us, and how much effort they are prepared to spend. In various studies, participants misjudged both the number of people who would commit to help with a task, and how much help and effort each person would contribute. What this means is that we might not expect it, but people say ‚yes‘ far more often than we think. And when they say yes, they really throw themselves into it. Why? There’s a growing amount of science on altruistic benefits, but the long and the short of it seems to show that humans really get a kick out of helping a specific person or people (rather than a general cause), especially when they have a chance to see how their help makes a positive impact. Studies at Harvard found that the emotional benefits of helping are multiplied when they ‚foster social connection‘. Universally, doing favours for others boosts our well-being overall. So next time someone helps you out, tell them how it impacted on you and allow them to bask in the warm glow.

In short, asking for help allow us to practice being courageous, foster social connections, become better, healthier, more wholehearted people. It also gives helpers the chance to lift themselves out of a negative mood, boost their overall well-being and enjoy the emotional benefits that come with giving.

Theory 3: You have to say the words. But when you do, be specific, unapologetic, personal, and then share your results

Ever held a crying baby in your arms, overwhelmed by frustration because you can’t figure out what it needs? Of course, the baby can’t articulate the help it needs, but we can… and should. We are often misled by „the illusion of transparency“ that others can see right through us, and will know exactly what we need without us having to actually say it. Make it easy for your helper – just tell them. The likelihood is that it’s not immediately obvious to them, and they don’t know what you are thinking and feeling. Research shows that 90 percent of the support that colleagues provide at work is in direct response to specific appeals for help. So get ready to say it out loud: „‚I need your help.“

Tips on asking for help and getting the help you need

  1. Be as clear as possible about the help you need. Half-baked, vague entreaties aren’t very useful. If we don’t really understand what it is that you need, then how can we be sure if we can adequately provide it? Giving useless help is a waste of everybody’s time.
  2. Phrase your request for help in a way that focuses on outcomes, rather than on you or your perceived shortcomings. In business, results really are what count and it’s far easier to provide help towards achieving a concrete goal than to try to support someone who feels crippled by insecurity. It may sound obvious but do share the bigger picture and explain what target this person’s help will support you in reaching.
  3. Don’t apologise or preface your request with a disclaimer about how awkward you feel having to ask for help. The subtext here is ‚I hate asking you for help’ and revealing this makes the whole experience a lot more joyless for everyone than it should be. Helping one another is an inherent part of human relationships, it is the acknowledged currency of caring, and getting hung up about this really doesn’t help!
  4. Having said that, asking for help is more than a transaction. Asking for help via email or text is impersonal and distancing, which, unsurprisingly, means people are less likely to help you than if you ask in person. And though asking by email may feel less uncomfortable, so does saying no! If you really want a yes, ask in person and your request is 30 times more likely to get a positive response.

Finally, and this is the one that came as the biggest revelation to me while researching this: every time you benefit from someone’s support, give them something back by following up with them afterwards. The idea that the act of helping is a reward in itself, is not entirely true. The real reward comes with knowing that your help made a positive difference on a human level. If I have no idea what impact my help had on you, how can I possibly feel good about it?

And on that note, can I ask for a favour? If anything in this article has made an impact on you, let me know in the comments section.


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