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How to Ask For Help

Most of us don’t like asking for help at work. Asking colleagues for help can bring out all sorts of fears - of being rejected, liked less, or even of looking silly - which is why we might not ask even when we really do need help. In modern organisations, it’s almost impossible to work properly without assistance from others.

So how can you ask for help effectively?

You must overcome your reluctance to ask for assistance. Be aware that some common ways of asking for help tend to be unproductive, because they make people less likely to want to give it. Learn the subtle cues that motivate people to support you and how to deliver them in the right way.

The easiest way to overcome the pain of asking for help is to understand that most people are surprisingly willing to do so.

The key to a successful request for help is to shift the focus to these benefits. 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. This includes prefaces such as “May I ask you a favour?” which make people feel trapped, and profuse apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this,” which make the experience seem less positive.

Approaches such as “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.

Minimising your need (“I don’t normally ask for help” or “It’s just a tiny thing”) doesn’t work either, because it suggests the assistance is trivial or even unnecessary.

Give a potential helper assurance that you’re on his or her team and that the team is important. This appeals to the innate human need to belong to and ensure the well-being of supportive social circles. You might also link your request to a shared goal, enemy, or trait, such as the desire to exceed your team’s sales targets or rivalry with a competitor in your industry.

Create an awareness in potential helpers that they are uniquely placed (by virtue of their attributes or role) to provide assistance and that they are not merely people who might help you but helpful people who routinely come to others’ aid.

Studies have shown that people contribute more to charity when asked if they would like to “be a generous donor” (versus “to donate”) and that children as young as three are more motivated to complete tasks such as cleaning up blocks when told they can “be a helper” (versus “can help”).

Gratitude is also a powerful way to boost helpers’ positive identity. A study by the productivity software company Boomerang of 350,000 e-mail exchanges found that “Thanks in advance” and “Thanks” yielded average response rates from 63% to 66%, compared with 51% to 54% for other popular options including “Best,” “Regards,” and “Cheers.”

Even expressed pre-emptively, gratitude can keep people interested and engaged in helping you, as long as you focus more on their generosity and selflessness—and what that says about them as people—than on how you’ll benefit from the help.

Helping others makes us feel good. People want to see or know the impact of the aid they will give. Many psychologists believe that feeling effective—knowing that your actions created the results you intended—is the fundamental human motivation; it’s what deeply engages people and gives meaning to their lives.

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2019 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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