Do you hate to ask for help?

I have had trouble asking for help for nearly my entire life. I don’t know when it started or what caused it, but at some point in my childhood I learned that knowing correct answers is rewarded, and asking for help is admitting that you don’t have the correct answer.

That simple idea led me to perpetrate, quite literally, decades of self-sabotage. Rather than ask a question or offer a guess, I just kept my mouth shut.

This behavior produced two outcomes for me:

  1. Most of the kids in my classes thought I was really smart, because I only raised my hand when I definitely knew the answer. Few people saw me screw up.

  2. I robbed myself of learning experiences, which is bad enough, but I also missed opportunities to give someone else the gift of helping me.

Fortunately, I have learned this about myself, so I can begin to fix it (and I’m a lot better now about asking for help when I know I really need it), but asking for help can be hard even for someone without a pathological fear of being wrong.

I want to share some ideas for how to overcome that reluctance when it strikes.

You are not alone

Jean Hsu, engineer, coach, and co-founder of “Co Leadership,” used to run workshops for engineering leaders, and in those workshops they’d ask attendees why they may have trouble asking for help.

Some of the reasons included:

  • People will think I’m stupid
  • They’re too busy
  • They’ll be annoyed
  • I should know this already

Straight away, you should feel reassured that if you have had any of those thoughts before, you’re not the first person to have them, and you most assuredly will not be the last.

In poll of over 2,000 adults administered by CivicScience, 74% said they ask for help “at home, at work, at a store, traveling, or online.” Compare that to only 41% who responded that they ask for help specifically while at work.

That discrepancy is enormous! Three out of four Americans are comfortable asking for help in most situations, yet almost two thirds are not comfortable asking for help at work.

It’s hard to ask for help.

This might help you ask for help

Here’s the thing: people like to be helpful.

Think about a time when someone asked you for help. Actually imagine a specific time. How did it feel to be asked for help? Did it make you feel knowledgeable, trustworthy, or responsible?

I bet it made you feel pretty good. Even if there is a perceived knowledge imbalance (for instance, if you are an Engineer II and you are approached for help by a Staff Engineer) you probably feel even more flattered to be asked by them. Having an opportunity to demonstrate our value, and to be of service to others, is consistently linked to sustained happiness.

Heidi Grant, social psychologist and author of “Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You,” says, “Human beings are basically wired to want to give help. It’s one of the richest sources of self-esteem, and it has the potential to be a real win-win. Helping is rewarding for people because they like to be supportive and connect with other people.”

Here are a couple additional tips from Grant:

  1. Ask. Our need for help is simply not obvious to others, so make it clear that you want help.

  2. Be direct and explicit. Don’t ask to “pick their brain,” or “to chat,” ask for what you specifically need.

  3. Ask a specific person, or specific people individually. If you pose the request to a group, you’re less likely to get help due to what psychologists call “diffusion of responsibility,” which is where group members all assume that someone else will help you.

  4. Don’t use manipulative tactics, or lead with “can you do me a favor?”. Don’t apologize for asking. People want to help you, but they want to feel that it was their informed decision, and nobody wants to feel like they’re helping out of pity.

A challenge

What have we learned? Most people are reluctant to ask for help at work. But, ironically, people love helping other people. If you ask someone directly, the chances are good that they’ll help you and that they’ll enjoy it.

In the next week, when you have a need for help, no matter how trivial, ask someone. Take note of what it feels like to ask, and what the outcome is.

Do you have stories about asking for help? I’d love to hear them (seriously!) You can always comment or write to me directly.

Lead image by @nikkotations on Unsplash