The science of asking for help — and 8 ways you can do it effectively

ask for help

Few of us enjoys asking for help: even admitting a need for assistance can be challenging, thanks to entrenched beliefs that employers or colleagues will see us as moaners, ‘not quite up to the role’ or just plain unable to cope. The fear that asking for help will reflect badly on us, leads many women to soldier on alone long after we’ve reached the edge of our own capability, whether practically or emotionally.

But it’s not just stoicism, character or fear that leads to reticence when it comes to sharing our burdens. Neuroscience and psychology have shown that reaching out for aid can trigger uncertainty, risk of rejection, the potential for diminished status and even threaten our sense of autonomy. What’s more, these feelings have been shown to activate the same brain regions as physical pain.

The workplace can be a particularly uncomfortable space in which to request assistance — it’s somewhere we’re trying to demonstrate as much expertise, competence, and confidence as possible in order to progress our careers. But asking for help is not only an important part of a resilience toolkit — it’s also essential to everything from performance to ongoing career development, gaining us advice, referrals and resources we might not otherwise access. In all cases, engaging the support of others in order to maximise your own resources is a strong and strategic choice, and making the shift to understanding that asking for help is not a sign of weakness — rather one of self-awareness and wisdom — can be a powerful growth point.

The good news is that people are actually also much more likely to be helpful than we think they are. Social psychologist Heidi Grant, author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You notes that we wildly underestimate the odds that others will help us — generally focusing on how effortful or unpleasant the request is, how busy the other person is and how annoying it’ll be for them to help us, rather than taking a positive and proactive perspective. But the key is that you have to ask to receive; estimates suggest that as much as 90% of the help co-workers give one another is in response to direct appeals. And you have to know how to do it effectively. Here are eight key ways to ask — and get the help you need to perform at your best.



1. Work out what you really need

Isolate what help you actually need. Often, when we are becoming overwhelmed, we can stray from strategic to reactive, and its key that our state of mind remains effective and focused. A good place to start is to ask yourself what would provide relief to what you are feeling or allow you to be more effective in the situation when working out what to ask for — and from whom. Ideally, too, you will want it to be something someone could do for you easily, within their skillset or area of control, without supervision or a lot of explanation which will add to your stress.


2. Ask for help clearly

During studies, many people cite uncertainty as a major part of their reluctance to give help to someone — no one wants to offer unsolicited help, with its potential to offend or be rebuffed. Being explicit about asking for what you need creates a clear space in which the person can then ascertain whether they can help, and how. And remember, people are more likely to want to help than you think; research by Cornell University professor Vanessa Bohns found that the rate at which people provided assistance to strangers who asked for it was 48% higher than the help seekers expected


3. Watch your language

Part of this clarity also includes using effective language; asking for help can fill us with such discomfort that we can easily start couching our requests as a question (‘Would you be able to…?’), an apology (‘I’m sorry to have to ask…’) or a burden (‘May I ask you a favour…?’) — all of which will make people feel pushed into a corner of negative about what they are being asked to provide. Avoid couching it in terms of reciprocity; ‘You help me; I help you’, will also create a negative dynamic as people can find purely transactional exchanges challenging.


4. Make it a plus for them to help

Instead, give people agency over their response to your request and offer cues that will help them to feel good about the help they are (hopefully) about to give you. These could include subtly underlining your team and its results, and how important they are, which taps into a need to belong and contribute. Mentioning shared experiences or a common goal, such as exceeding the quarter’s sales can also encourage collaboration. Finally, making recognition of the fact that they are uniquely placed to provide assistance and not merely ‘someone who might help you’ will improve the receptivity of your request.


5. Consider the timing

Timing is a crucial factor, on both sides of the dynamic. The best time to ask for help is before you hit crisis point — don’t wait until you are at the end of your tether before trying to take off some of the pressure with external support. Asking in a calm and strategic way at this point highlights your professionalism, whereas doing it with a tinge of desperation has the opposite effect. On the other side, if someone is busy or stressed themselves, your request may not find fertile ground. The best way to ensure they’re in a receptive space is to ask them when the best time is to talk.


6. Outline the impact of their help

Another powerful way to encourage people’s cooperation is to highlight their impact in a situation. Research has shown that feeling effective is a fundamental human motivator, so when putting your request to a person, it’s a good idea to outline the effect their help would have. If they have helped you previously, mention the positive impact it had before.


7. Accept the help given

You may have an idea of the type of help you are looking for, but it pays not to be overly rigid and demanding about what is actually offered in the end. People will generally give freely if they feel that their contribution will be appreciated, and even if it’s not exactly what you asked for, it may still have a positive impact on the situation — or even lead to someone that actually can give you precisely what you want or need. Also stay flexible about who you ask: research by Stanford Business School shows that if someone has turned down your request for help in the past, they are actually more likely to help you the next time you ask.



8. Say thank you

Promise to follow up and make sure you do so; it’s not only polite but makes it clear that you’ve acted on their advice or used their support, which again reinforces their own effectiveness. And remember to say “thank you”. Even pre-emptively, showing gratitude for someone’s generosity and time can help people to feel good about their contribution, your interaction and by extension their willingness to continue to help you.