So, asking for help is basically the worst, right? I've actually never seen it on one of those top ten lists of things people fear, like public speaking and death, but I'm pretty sure it actually belongs there. Even though in many ways it's foolish for us to be afraid to admit we need help, whether it's from a loved one or a friend or from a coworker or even from a stranger, somehow it always feel just a little bit uncomfortable and embarrassing to actually ask for help, which is, of course, why most of us try to avoid asking for help whenever humanly possible.
My father was one of those legions of fathers who, I swear, would rather drive through an alligator-infested swamp than actually ask someone for help getting back to the road. When I was a kid, we took a family vacation. We drove from our home in South Jersey to Colonial Williamsburg. And I remember we got really badly lost. My mother and I pleaded with him to please just pull over and ask someone for directions back to the highway, and he absolutely refused, and, in fact, assured us that we were not lost, he had just always wanted to know what was over here.
So if we're going to ask for help — and we have to, we all do, practically every day — the only way we're going to even begin to get comfortable with it is to get good at it, to actually increase the chances that when you ask for help from someone, they're actually going to say yes. And not only that, but they're going to find it actually satisfying and rewarding to help you, because that way, they'll be motivated to continue to help you into the future.
So research that I and some of my colleagues have done has shed a lot of light on why it is that sometimes people say yes to our requests for help and why sometimes they say no. Now let me just start by saying right now: if you need help, you are going to have to ask for it. Out loud. OK? We all, to some extent, suffer from something that psychologists call "the illusion of transparency" — basically, the mistaken belief that our thoughts and our feelings and our needs are really obvious to other people. This is not true, but we believe it. And so, we just mostly stand around waiting for someone to notice our needs and then spontaneously offer to help us with it. This is a really, really bad assumption. In fact, not only is it very difficult to tell what your needs are, but even the people close to you often struggle to understand how they can support you.
My partner has actually had to adopt a habit of asking me multiple times a day, "Are you OK? Do you need anything?" because I am so, so bad at signaling when I need someone's help. Now, he is more patient than I deserve and much more proactive, much more, about helping than any of us have any right to expect other people to be. So if you need help, you're going to have to ask for it. And by the way, even when someone can tell that you need help, how do they know that you want it? Did you ever try to give unsolicited help to someone who, it turns out, did not actually want your help in the first place? They get nasty real quick, don't they?
The other day — true story — my teenage daughter was getting dressed for school, and I decided to give her some unsolicited help about that.
I happen to think she looks amazing in brighter colors. She tends to prefer sort of darker, more neutral tones. And so I said, very helpfully, that I thought maybe she could go back upstairs and try to find something a little less somber.
So, if looks could kill, I would not be standing here right now. We really can't blame other people for not just spontaneously offering to help us when we don't actually know that that's what is wanted. In fact, actually, research shows that 90 percent of the help that coworkers give one another in the workplace is in response to explicit requests for help. So you're going to have to say the words "I need your help." Right? There's no getting around it.
Now, to be good at it, to make sure that people actually do help you when you ask for it, there are a few other things that are very helpful to keep in mind.
First thing: when you ask for help, be very, very specific about the help you want and why. Vague, sort of indirect requests for help actually aren't very helpful to the helper, right? We don't actually know what it is you want from us, and, just as important, we don't know whether or not we can be successful in giving you the help. Nobody wants to give bad help. Like me, you probably get some of these requests from perfectly pleasant strangers on LinkedIn who want to do things like "get together over coffee and connect" or "pick your brain." I ignore these requests literally every time. And it's not that I'm not a nice person. It's just that when I don't know what it is you want from me, like the kind of help you're hoping that can I provide, I'm not interested. Nobody is. I'd have been much more interested if they had just come out and said whatever it is was they were hoping to get from me, because I'm pretty sure they had something specific in mind. So go ahead and say, "I'm hoping to discuss opportunities to work in your company," or, "I'd like to propose a joint research project in an area I know you're interested in," or, "I'd like your advice on getting into medical school." Technically, I can't help you with that last one because I'm not that kind of doctor, but I could point you in the direction of someone who could.
OK, second tip. This is really important: please avoid disclaimers, apologies and bribes. Really, really important. Do any of these sound familiar?
'I'm so, so sorry that I have to ask you for this." "I really hate bothering you with this." "If I had any way of doing this without your help, I would."
Sometimes it feels like people are so eager to prove that they're not weak and greedy when they ask your for help, they're completely missing out on how uncomfortable they're making you feel. And by the way — how am I supposed to find it satisfying to help you if you really hated having to ask me for help? And while it is perfectly, perfectly acceptable to pay strangers to do things for you, you need to be very, very careful when it comes to incentivizing your friends and coworkers. When you have a relationship with someone, helping one another is actually a natural part of that relationship. It's how we show one another that we care. If you introduce incentives or payments into that, what can happen is, it starts to feel like it isn't a relationship, it's a transaction. And that actually is experienced as distancing, which, ironically, makes people less likely to help you. So a spontaneous gift after someone gives you some help to show your appreciation and gratitude — perfectly fine. An offer to pay your best friend to help you move into your new apartment is not.
OK, third rule, and I really mean this one: please do not ask for help over email or text. Really, seriously, please don't. Email and text are impersonal. I realize sometimes there's no alternative, but mostly what happens is, we like to ask for help over email and text because it feels less awkward for us to do so. You know what else feels less awkward over email and text? Telling you no. And it turns out, there's research to support this. In-person requests for help are 30 times more likely to get a yes than a request made by email. So when something is really important and you really need someone's help, make face time to make the request, or use your phone as a phone —
to ask for the help that you need.
OK. Last one, and this is actually a really, really important one and probably the one that is most overlooked when it comes to asking for help: when you ask someone for their help and they say yes, follow up with them afterward. There's a common misconception that what's rewarding about helping is the act of helping itself. This is not true. What is rewarding about helping is knowing that your help landed, that it had impact, that you were effective. If I have no idea how my help affected you, how am I supposed to feel about it?
This happened; I was a university professor for many years, I wrote lots and lots of letters of recommendation for people to get jobs or to go into graduate school. And probably about 95 percent of them, I have no idea what happened. Now, how do I feel about the time and effort I took to do that, when I really have no idea if I helped you, if it actually helped you get the thing that you wanted? In fact, this idea of feeling effective is part of why certain kinds of donor appeals are so, so persuasive — because they allow you to really vividly imagine the effect that your help is going to have.
Take something like DonorsChoose. You go online, you can choose the individual teacher by name whose classroom you're going to be able to help by literally buying the specific items they've requested, like microscopes or laptops or flexible seating. An appeal like that makes it so easy for me to imagine the good that my money will do, that I actually get an immediate sense of effectiveness the minute I commit to giving.
But you know what else they do? They follow up. Donors actually get letters from the kids in the classroom. They get pictures. They get to know that they made a difference. And this is something we need to all be doing in our everyday lives, especially if we want people to continue to give us help over the long term. Take time to tell your colleague that the help that they gave you really helped you land that big sale, or helped you get that interview that you were really hoping to get. Take time to tell your partner that the support they gave you really made it possible for you to get through a tough time. Take time to tell your catsitter that you're super happy that for some reason, this time the cats didn't break anything while you were away, and so they must have done a really good job.
The bottom line is: I know — believe me, I know — that it is not easy to ask for help. We are all a little bit afraid to do it. It makes us feel vulnerable. But the reality of modern work and modern life is that nobody does it alone. Nobody succeeds in a vacuum. More than ever, we actually do have to rely on other people, on their support and collaboration, in order to be successful.
So when you need help, ask for it out loud. And when you do, do it in a way that increases your chances that you'll get a yes and makes the other person feel awesome for having helped you, because you both deserve it.