You probably don’t mind lending a hand when someone needs help. We’re hardwired for altruism. In fact, it triggers a feeling of pleasure, according to neuroscience. When it comes to asking for help, though, it’s not that easy. We often feel awkward or even worrisome. Why is there such a disconnect?
Asking for help is a situation where our intuition is terrible, says social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant, author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You and associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.
“We help others every day—who works alone? And we know what it’s like to be asked,” she says. “Helping and being helped are win/win situations. You get the help you need, and the people helping you get increased well-being; self-esteem is related to helping.”
Asking for help, however, poses these four challenges:
1. You must make your needs known
People need to know you need help. “That’s a huge obstacle that people don’t see,” says Grant. “We’re all ego-centric and have rich information about what’s happening to us that others don’t. We think it’s obvious we need help, but attention is fragile and we don’t notice others around us.”
Be clear about how they can help. No one will know you need help unless you ask.
2. Let them know help is welcome
People are often hesitant to jump in and help because they fear it won’t be welcome.
“Some people become irritated when they’re offered help they didn’t want when they want to do something themselves,” says Grant. “It should be an explicit invitation. Left to their own devices, people often do nothing because it’s a safer choice. You need to let people know you need and want help.”
3. Be clear that they’re an appropriate helper
The third challenge is due to a diffusion of responsibility, says Grant. “People think, ‘I see you need and want help. Am I the person who is supposed to help you?'” she says. “You often see this in public because nobody knows that they are the one who should step forward. Make it clear who is supposed to help.”
At work, for example, avoid sending a blanket email asking for help. “If people see lots of others in the chain, they feel, ‘Well it’s not a direct ask of me. Why am I the one who should be helping?'” says Grant. “If you’re serious about needing help, it’s worth the time it takes to send individual emails.”
4. Ask the right people
In order to help, we need to believe that we can. Ask for help from people who are equipped to help in the way you need.
“No one wants to give bad help,” says Grant. “We don’t want to give help when we don’t feel qualified. You need to believe your help will be effective, otherwise we feel terrible if we try to help and fail.”
How to ask
Once you’ve overcome the challenges, make sure you frame the “ask” in a way that makes the process positive. Be realistic and appreciate the fact that people are busy. Think about how you can ask the person help you in a way that will be easiest for them to do it.
General requests for help can be scary for the person you’re asking, says Grant. “Say, ‘Can you help me by doing x, y, and z within the next week?'” she says. “Now I have a pretty good sense that if I can do that effectively, I’m more likely to say ‘yes’ and help you.”
Give thought on how to make it not arduous. Being flexible is important, and be understanding about other’s people circumstances. And be respectful; nobody wants to feel the reason someone is asking for their help is because they don’t feel like doing the task.
“It feels lazy and arrogant in ways that make people unhappy,” says Grant. “Make it clear that you’re not doing that. This is a respectful request, not lazy shirking. ‘I genuinely need help and here’s why.'”
But don’t ruin it
Our perspective when it comes to asking for help, however, is bad, Grant says: “We often see the exchange as being a burden, and then we ask in ways that ruin it for the other person.”
The problem comes when the asker tries to see the situation through the eyes of the person being asked. “Even when we try, we can’t get fully into someone else’s point of view,” says Grant. “So we tend to overfocus on how effortful and arduous and horrible the task will be. We’re focused on how horrible we think it will be, and how can we make it better.”
Too often people apologize while asking or they turn it into a transaction. In other words, you do something nice for me, and I’ll do something nice for you. “If I’m helping you in exchange for something, I can’t feel generous,” says Grant. “It turns the helping into a transaction between strangers, and it undermines my ability to feel good about the relationship. In that moment, we’re so awkwardly trying to make it better, and we really make it worse.”
Helping feels good, and that’s the piece we keep forgetting, says Grant. “It’s rewarding,” she says. “We don’t have to apologize and we don’t have to compensate. If we can embrace the idea that people do want to help, then the rest comes easily.”