We all need help – so why is it so hard to ask?

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A few months back, a small group of members joined a series of discussions centred around asking and receiving – facilitated by the mindful master himself Stephen Pitcher. Our aim was to dig deep within ourselves as individuals to explore the barriers we experience, real and perceived, when we ask for help. As a community, we believe that none of us knows it all, but collectively we can solve seemingly insurmountable challenges. So it’s important for us to explore ways in which we can remove those barriers one by one to ensure that every one of us has the courage and the conviction to ask for a helping hand when we need it.

Few of us enjoy asking for help. As research in neuroscience and psychology shows, the social threats involved—the uncertainty, risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and the threat to our need for independence and autonomy—activate the same brain regions that physical pain does. Out in the marketplace, we’re typically keen to demonstrate as much expertise, competence, and confidence as possible, it can feel particularly uncomfortable to be vulnerable.

We’re also hardwired to value independence and autonomy. Relying on someone else means investing trust in the relationship and another individual. Trust is something that is sorely lacking in our society. Often we feel it is ‘safer’ to inject a value exchange into the ask to ensure the other party is motivated to follow through.

However, it’s virtually impossible to be successful in today’s world without support from your network.

Asking for help often makes us feel uneasy because it requires surrendering control to someone else. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to surrender in the midst of the world’s uncertain future, it is the limited amount of control we get to have over ourselves and our business.

Another fear is being perceived as needy. We don’t want to feel shame, or come across as incompetent, so we work really hard to keep up appearances and ensure that people don’t see us this way. This mindset can be amplified during the Covid-19 crisis – you believe that everyone has enough to deal with and it wouldn’t be fair to burden them even more. Or perhaps you have asked and have been horribly disappointed by someone you valued highly – so you can only ever rely on yourself. In the word’s of Byron Katie, ‘can you be sure that these thoughts are true’? Sometimes we have self-limiting beliefs around ‘help’ and ‘helping’ that are really not serving us. Perhaps the easiest way to overcome the pain of asking for help is to realize that most people are surprisingly willing to lend a hand. In fact, studies show that people who pledge to offer help to others feel happier than those who only indulge themselves.

How to get better at asking for help

When it comes to asking for help, style can be as important as substance. How you frame your question can make all the difference between getting the help you need (and not) and building a good professional reputation (and not). To make the best impression possible, don’t just ask your question; share all the hard work you’ve done to help yourself before involving other people. Not only will this prevent a slew of obvious answers (🙄), but it helps people understand how important this decision is to you and how exactly they can add value.

Phrases such as “May I ask a favor?,” can make people feel obligated, while advance apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this,” kill off the good feels we get from helping. Emphasizing reciprocity—“I’ll help you if you help me”—can also sometimes backfire, because we don’t like to be indebted to anyone. Minimizing your need—“I don’t normally ask for help” or “It’s just a tiny thing”—can also be ineffective, because it suggests the assistance is so trivial that it is not valuable to the requestor, or it may invoke the ‘bystander effect’ -where lots of people can help, bot everyone is assuming that someone else will. The result is often no help!

Some tips to frame the ask in a more positive light are:

  • Create a compelling goal – humans value togetherness and yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves. Even a rivalry (to beat the competition) can be a unifying force!
  • Infer a positive identity – there is a subtle but significant difference between being referred to as a ‘donor’ as opposed to ‘a generous benefactor’ in the same way that we value the difference between being a ‘help’ to someone and ‘contributing significantly to our success’. This is less of an ego-massage and more aligned with creating connection between the help provided and the impact or outcome that was achieved

With practice, we will all get better at it. Taking opportunities to ask for help in smaller ways when you’d otherwise fake it can really make a difference over time. For example, speaking up if you are having trouble with video-conferencing, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the expectations around having a digital presence, or you’re not getting the results you had anticipated from your business strategy. Sometimes an independent observer can provide the perspective that unlocks an ‘aha moment’ – but if you never ask, you’ll never know.

Another practical strategy is to reframe your request so it’s a conversation, rather than a transaction. From time to time a member will ask me how much do I charge for a consultation. My answer is always the same – if we feel we need to ‘tax’ the art of conversation we are shutting ourselves off from the wonders that serendipity brings into our lives. There should be no barriers to exploratory conversation, to referrals, to introductions, to collaborations. In an age of rapid technological evolution human connection is more important than ever. Monetizing conversation only serves to exclude the people most in need of help while shutting out the enormous power of conversation to open minds, expand our knowledge, and promote diversity awareness. Besides, you may just find a wonderful mentor, a potential collaborator, a savvy co-founder, or a great service provider!

If you’re contemplating a significant decision, arguing with yourself inside your head won’t improve the outcome. Reach out to us at info@irelandtogether.ie and together we’ll put the wheels in motion to assemble your team of Avengers. A focus group to tease our your product offering, a beta-user group to test your MVP, or a roundtable to address a particular challenge – we create safe spaces to solve complex challenges together. Chatham House Rules are always in place, occasionally supported with NDAs – communities, afterall, thrive on trust. 😉

Creating your own personal ‘board of advisors’ will not only support your business – connection and community will support you – putting the ME into your SME.

Adopt an attitude of gratitude

If you have been on the receiving side of a useful conversation or service, don’t forget to also show a little love and appreciation. It could be as simple as mentioning, “I really appreciate you taking the time to _____________, given how busy you are with _________”, or offer a testimonial if you feel strongly that the help unlocked opportunity for you. Little gestures of appreciation can be very impactful increase the odds of others being willing to help you again.

When you next find yourself in need of help, remember that we are all willing to give it much more often than not. There is no better way to make someone feel good about himself or herself than to ask for it. It brings out the best—and the best feelings—in all of us.

[Reach out to us at info@irelandtogether.ie if you do have a request. Community members – set our discussion channels ablaze with your requests – we can’t wait to read them!]

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