Asking for Help

The simplest way to solve a problem is to ask someone who has the expertise needed to suggest a good solution. We rarely help others unless they prompt us by specifically asking for assistance. It’s amazing how generous people can be when they’re asked in the right way. So why don’t we ask more often?

The reasons are many. For starters, we don’t ask for help because we tend to assume others may be unwilling or unable to provide what we need. Research conducted at Columbia University confirms that we routinely underestimate what others might be capable of doing for us. Moreover, most of us prefer to be self-reliant (85% of Americans, when surveyed, say they’d rather depend on themselves than on others). Yet not asking for help when it’s needed is self-limiting and sometimes self-destructive. In complicated work situations, for example, a failure to seek the assistance or counsel of colleagues is a lost opportunity to collaborate and learn.

We were schooled on certain notions that limit our willingness to ask. These include being mistrustful of strangers, that individual accomplishment is a measure of strength and that it’s better (or perhaps more noble) to give than to receive – a principle extolled in most of the world’s religions. The fact is it’s quite okay to both give and receive. Without receivers, we cannot be givers. When done properly, asking ignites a virtuous cycle: it fuels reciprocity and encourages more giving. Who would argue with that notion?

Some don’t request help because they believe there’s a social cost exacted on the one who asks, an implied quid pro quo. Robert Cialdini, the renowned guru of psychological influence, calls this the principle of reciprocity. Others assume the very act of asking for help suggests a lack of competence. Yet asking for advice demonstrates confidence more than weakness. It implies we know what we don’t know and that is the precursor to acquiring wisdom.

While it’s said that beggars can’t be choosers, in considering whom to ask, you should be somewhat selective. There’s little to be gained by asking those whom you know will likely say “no.” Rather, ask those you believe genuinely want to be helpful, who are good at keeping confidences, who you think are competent and who you believe will provide insightful, candid feedback. Provided they know exactly what they want and know whom to ask, beggars can indeed be choosers

In negotiating, the cardinal rule is: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And the more you ask for, the more you’re likely to receive. This is the psychological response to what neuro-research defines as priming. But asking for help is not a negotiation. So, asking for “too much” can be unwise. It’s better to ask for what you actually require. Knowing exactly what you need enables you to know who to ask, how to phrase your request and better ensures the person asked will know how best to respond. The acronym SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time dated) applies as much to asking for help as it does to setting good objectives.

Asking for help must be done graciously as well as strategically. In her research, Allison Woods of Harvard University describes this scenario: You’re standing in the rain at a train station and a stranger politely asks “Can I borrow your cell phone?” How would you respond to that request? What if the question were phrased differently: “I’m so sorry about the rain … can I borrow your cell phone?” In which scenario are you more likely to say “yes”? In Dr. Woods’ study, the response to the second question was 422% greater than the first, simply because of those five qualifying words – “so sorry about the rain.” Empathy greases the skids.

The medium of the request also influences the response. Should you ask via telephone, via email or face-to-face? Research tells us people have a hard time saying no when asked for something on the phone which is one reason it’s a telemarketer’s weapon of choice. That said, a report in the Harvard Business Review (2017) suggests a face-to-face request is 34 times more effective than an email message.

A casual (vs. formal) request, such as “Can I run something by you,” is advised. Never start with an apology (“I’m sorry to ask you this, but ….”) and don’t use coercive tactics like “You know I’d do this for you.” Accept rejection gracefully – it may even re-open the door. Don’t seek more than you’re given (this alone may encourage a better offer). When you receive a positive response, listen non-defensively and always follow up to let them know how helpful their assistance was. Take the long-term view; one day you may be in a position to reciprocate.

Never take rejection personally; it’s just useful information. “No” has many meanings. To a negotiator, it’s merely a position in time. To a child, it’s an open invitation to challenge parental authority. To an unquestioning subordinate, it’s rejection carved in stone. To a literalist, it’s a lost opportunity. Depending upon its timing, phrasing, the speaker and the context, “no” can be instructive. It could mean I’m not sure; I don’t understand; I need more information; It’s the wrong time; or, perhaps, I need more time.

We have little choice but to request the assistance of others. Because no one is objective or informed or tough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do or how to do it in every circumstance. So, once you figure out what it is you require – whether it be advice, information, a referral, money, a promotion, mentorship or just cooperation – getting the help you need in the right way and at the right time should be a matter of design, not good fortune. This is especially important when you have to make choices that have profound or lasting consequences

As boss, parent, teacher or just a good friend, encourage others to ask for help. We need more of it. As authentically as you can, say “thank you for asking!” Validation is our greatest need. So, when asked, give it back in abundance. Show you care.