Asking for Help

What are you learning right now? Top of my list right now is: getting better at asking for help. I’ve personally been struggling with this forever. Asking for help are about communicating your needs — first to yourself and then to others.

Many people seems to struggle with asking for help and I think there are a couple of pieces to this:

  • getting into the mindset that it’s OK to receive help
  • cultivating the habit of asking
  • making a more effective ask

Different people tripped up on different stages. The good news is each of these issues are learnable and trainable.

But first: why do I want to learn how to ask for help?

I know that getting better at asking for help will make my life easier. I can let myself be less overwhelmed, and allocate more time on things that are worth my limited time, energy, and attention. I need to work smarter. I can’t have all the fun from being the Hero all the time. Yes there are tradeoffs but the trick is to find the benefit that’s worth the cost.

It’s OK to receive help

My biggest drive in life is to be perceived as independent, self sufficient, and competent. I like to be the one to solve things, to provide, to be the Hero. I am resourceful and can figure things out on my own. I don’t like to relinquish control. I want to do it myself.

On top of that, living with limited mobility, I want to prove that I am beyond capable. That I don’t need sympathy and above all: batshit cool.

75% ego, 25% curiosity.

I realised it stems from:

  • fear of being perceived as less intelligent, afraid of bothering, making other people feel obliged to say yes, feeling like I owed someone (the power controller in me!)
  • a sense of unworthiness, ashamed of the desire, not sure if it’s possible, fear of rejection
  • fear of not making sense (not knowing where to start articulating the problem and ask clearly / not being certain what I actually need from whom), not sure who would know how to help. Not realising that sometimes being listened to is a valid “help”
  • fear of vulnerability — losing that safe emotional distance that (I thought) opening up about my problems will bring. Not realising that many problems wouldn’t survive reality checks and “oh I struggle with that too”

Rephrasing Stephen Chbosky’s line from’ The Perks of Being a Wallflower: We accept the ~~love~~ help we think we deserve.

Two thought experiments If you struggle with this part the most:

  1. Think of the last 10 times you helped someone with something. Make a list of 1) what favour it was, 2) what do you think about the person now, and 3) whether you classified it as a positive of negative experience.
  2. Imagine you are asking yourself for help. How do you feel towards yourself? Do you think “this person does not deserve to be helped“? Do you think “Oh I’m flattered she thought of me“? Do you think “I don’t have time for this“? Start untangling there. Be curious.

I found that I never thought less of these people for needing assistance. And interestingly, through the process I build stronger relationship with these people. I trust them and myself more.

Habit of asking

I’m trying something. Once a day for a week, I will ask myself: “do I need help with this?

Then the next: “what help do I need today?”

Then: “who might be able to help with this?

And finally: “”In what ways can this be better, who can help this be better?“”

I thought even if I do nothing with the answers, it’ll train that muscle. I (hope I) will feel less weird over time. Welcome that thought, befriend it.

I’ll probably repeat it and do two sets of it (so, 8 weeks), to get that habit ingrained.

This will also hopefully help me get better at noticing things that could be much better if I involve other people’s perspectives and resources on. We are so used to our problems and life situations that we take it at face value. We cope and didn’t think of other possibilities.

In what ways can other people’s resources make my life easier?

Start making the ask

Once the habit is there, time to test the water. Start small, silly low risk low stake things. Start relying on others a bit more. Get the requests out. Book recommendations, advices, introductions, ask for directions, extra discount, change the meeting schedule.

Then as you grow more comfortable, increase the stakes. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Remove blockers that would usually prevent me from actually making the ask.

One idea that inspired me to be more optimistic and humble about how much other people can and willing to help is Barbara Sher’s Idea Party: (the magic of the crowd, and six degree of separation)

Making an effective ask

In this HBR article, Heidi Grant shared the key to a successful request for help:

You want people to feel that they would be helping because they want to, not because they must, and that they’re in control of the decision. That means avoiding any language suggesting that you or someone else is instructing them to help, that they should help, or that they have no choice but to do so.

  • “May I ask you a favor?,” could make people feel trapped
  • profuse apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this,” could make the experience seem less positive.
  • Emphasizing reciprocity—“I’ll help you if you help me” can backfire because people don’t like to be indebted to anyone or to engage in a purely transactional exchange.
  • Minimizing your need—“I don’t normally ask for help” or “It’s just a tiny thing” suggests the assistance is trivial or even unnecessary.

Put more succinctly: reframe your request so it’s a conversation, rather than a transaction. Start from the place of worthiness and respect to the helper.

Make sure as much of these three factors are included in your ask:

  • In-group. Assurance that you’re on his or her team and that the team is important. Greater good.
  • Positive Identity. Focus on their generosity and selflessness and what that says about them as people than on how you’ll benefit from the help.
  • Impact. People want to see or know the impact of the aid they will give. The context, the Why. For example, when asking a colleague to review a client proposal, you might say, “Would you please review this before I send it to XYZ? Your input really helped my previous pitch to ABC succeed.

Think Who

As probably many people experienced, my career started with asking and answering lots of Hows. I do and make things. Then it shifted to asking more Whys. Why should we do the How? What is it for? Should we do this Why or that Why?

Now it has come to a place where to scale the impact, I need to start thinking about Who. Who is best for this task? Do they know the How? Have I communicated the When and the What? Do they understand the Why?

Knowing how to ask for help is key skill for me to develop to survive this stage. Think Who. Who can help me expand my life’s impact?

Also published on Medium.

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