Learning to Ask for Help

How often do you ask for help? How often do you push through on your own?

As a small business owner, we wear a lot of hats, and we’re used to doing a lot of things on our own. Asking for help isn’t always easy, and sometimes, it’s downright uncomfortable. But learning to ask for help is an essential component of a sustainable business, because no matter how hard we try, we can’t do everything alone.

What keeps us from asking for help even when we know we need it? A major impediment is that we get burdened by the fear of rejection. We assume that someone will say no, and in that assumption, we miss out on the opportunity to connect with those who want to support us.

As it turns out, people are more willing to help than we think. “Most human beings buy into the idea that good people are helpful, and so most people don’t like to say no to a request for help” Heidi Grant told The Verge. Grant is the author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, a book that covers all the ins and outs of asking for help.

It’s easy to get into a situation where we don’t want to burden someone else, but research has shown that we tend to underestimate the help that people are willing to give. In fact, people are about 50% more likely to help us than we think they are.

Why do we have such a negative perspective on those around us? Because we’re usually focused on ourselves and don’t take the time to get into their mindset (parallel to this, we also underestimate how much other people like us). As Frank Flynn of Stanford puts it, “people’s underestimation of others’ willingness to comply is driven by their failure to diagnose these feelings of social obligation on the part of others.” As humans, we like to help each other out.

Imagine it this way: how do you react when someone asks for help? There may be times when time and other obligations keep you from providing help, but most often we’re willing to lend a hand. That’s because altruism appears to be hard-wired in our brains, and when we engage in altruistic acts, our brain lights up in the same spots as when its activated by food or sex. Helping someone makes us feel good.

If we know that people are more willing to help than we think, the next step is to work on the asking part. Asking for help may not come easy, and if it doesn’t, we have to learn to work at it. “It’s like building a new muscle,” Grant told The Washington Post.

Remind yourself that being vulnerable is a strength

Asking for help means surrendering control, and that’s scary and uncomfortable for a lot of people. It puts us in a vulnerable place. We also live in a society driven by individualism, and the result is that we have a tendency to view asking for help as a sign of weakness. But in fact, asking for help actually makes other people see us as more competent, not less. Not only that, but just asking people for advice makes them think you are smarter.

Be proactive about asking for help

We have probably all been in those moments where asking for help wasn’t an option, but a necessity. Those moments where we get a little too close to the breaking point, and we need someone to throw us a life raft in the form of assistance. The trick is to learn to ask for help before we get to that point. Consider asking for help like preventative medicine so that you don’t end up in crisis mode or in burnout.

Ask for help in an effective way

People may be incredibly willing to support us, but there are plenty of ways not to ask for help. Correctly framing our ask is essential to getting the help that we need, and we have to be clear about what we need help with and how we want someone to help. Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do Is Ask, developed a method to use when asking for help called SMART (which stands for Specific, Meaningful, Action, Realistic, and Time). This 5-step strategy can be used to help focus your ask for help with clear action items and a timeline, which all contribute to making the person more willing to help you. “Sure, you have to be sensitive about another person’s circumstances. But helping others is a stress reducer. It feels good to help others. It gives people a sense of purpose and usefulness,” Baker told Forbes.

Ask outside of your usual circle

It’s easy to go to the same people that we interact with often for help, but reconnecting with dormant relationships can be just as powerful. A friend of mine referred to a longstanding group of friends that we are both a part of as “Low Maintenance High Yield,” essentially friends that we aren’t necessarily in regular contact with, but when one of us has a bigger need or request we can count on everyone to show up. With connections like this, it can be particularly important in how you frame the ask for help, but reaching out beyond our immediate circle can help expand our networks and allow for support and help we might not have tapped into otherwise.

Asking for help cultivates a culture of help

Even if we are willing to help others, when we don’t ask for help ourselves, we perpetuate this cycle of pushing through on our own, missing out on the resources and assistance that are all around us. The more that you ask for help, the more that you encourage others to do the same. Imagine what we could all do if we helped each other.

Anna Brones

Writer and artist based in the Pacific Northwest. Author of several books including Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Works as a papercut illustrator and teaches classes and workshops on art and creativity. Find her online at annabrones.com.

Make what you make make money

Start a store