Think about the last time you helped someone you like.
Perhaps you recommended them for a job, introduced them to a plumber, set them up on a blind date, or gave them the benefit of your experience or expertise with some invaluable advice.
How did you feel about giving them that help? Particularly if you found out that they got the job, had their leak fixed, are now in a new relationship, or got past the challenge holding them back?
How did it make you feel knowing that your input was a crucial part of their success?
If you are like most people, you feel good about it. There doesn’t need to be a promise of payment or any other reward for doing so, even an expectation of the favour being reciprocated. We simply take pleasure from seeing other people succeed because we have helped them to do so.
Now think back to the last time you needed help. How did you feel about asking?
There’s a tremendous disconnect between our attitudes to offering and seeking support. When I ask the questions above, the results are very similar irrespective of gender, role, or culture: Most people enjoy helping others but struggle to ask for or accept help for themselves.
Why is this the case? I think there are three main reasons why we don’t like to ask for help.
There tends to be a lot of awkwardness associated with asking for help. The person asking feels on the back foot, aware that they are seeking a favour and not sure whether the person they are asking will appreciate their request.
This is despite the fact that we know that we, and others, get pleasure from helping others. If we are asking the right people for help and making it easy for them to help us, why would we be a burden? We are offering them the chance to delight in being a part of our success.
Reframe how you see the act of seeking support. Instead of worrying about how people perceive the request, ensure that you frame it in a way they will respond positively to it.
You can make it easy for people to help you by being clear and specific about your request. Avoid being vague, and make sure you are doing the work first, not leaving it to them. Ask for something that will be easy for them to understand and deliver.
Ask at the right time. Not when the other person is busy, stressed, or otherwise preoccupied. And don’t sandwich your request quietly as an afterthought to a longer and deeper conversation about something else. Pick your moment and give your request the time and space to breathe.
And make sure it’s a pleasure to help you by giving feedback on your progress and displaying your gratitude. Expressions of gratitude don’t have to be expensive gifts; a handwritten note or sincere phone call can often mean much more. Just don’t ignore the person who helped you once you have moved on.
Perceived vulnerability is one of the biggest brakes on seeking support, according to feedback from audiences. Yet the fear of being seen as vulnerable comes from a simple misunderstanding.
People see vulnerability as a weakness.
Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It takes strength to tell other people that you don’t have all of the answers, that you’re struggling with something, or that you need help. And the support you receive as a result of asking for help will often lead to your desired outcome, which surely makes you stronger.
You can, of course, look weak when asking for help. That has nothing to do with vulnerability, though; it’s all about how you position your request. It’s just as easy to ask from a position of strength…
“I feel that I’ve excelled in my current role and I’m ready for my next move. Would you work with me to help identify who I should be working with and make some introductions?”
as it is to do so from one of weakness…
“I’m struggling in my current role and nobody is happy with my performance. Can you recommend me for something else?”
People might not want to help you, they might not be able to help you, they may be too busy to help you, or they might not know how to help you.
All of those are possibilities, but let those people decide that for themselves. Too often we don’t ask for the help we need because we assume that we’ll get a negative response, not because we know that we will.
If we do get a negative response, we view that as a rejection. And nobody likes to be rejected. So, we don’t ask. It’s safer that way, isn’t it?
Stop assuming that people will say “no”, and make it OK even if they do. Communicate to them that “no” is a valid answer that won’t offend. And communicate it to yourself. There are so many reasons why people might not feel able to help and, if you’ve asked the right person, in the right way, you shouldn’t be close to the top of that list. Stop making it all about you.
A “no” isn’t necessarily a rejection, but if you assume people will refuse and you don’t ask, you almost certainly won’t get the help that you need.
Reflect on the pleasure you’ve experienced from helping other people, and share that joy by enabling the people who care about your success to help you whenever they can.