Asking for help at work can feel uncomfortable — which is totally normal. According to social psychologist Heidi Grant, Ph.D., it’s human nature to be fearful of admitting we need a hand. “We’re all a little bit afraid to ask for help,” Grant says in a recent TED Talk. “But the reality of modern work and modern life is that nobody does it alone — nobody succeeds in a vacuum.”
In her research on motivation and communication, Grant has found that everyone requires some level of help from colleagues and mentors, but when it comes to asking for it, most go about it in the wrong way. “We have to rely on other people for their support and collaboration,” she adds. “If we’re going to ask for help — which we all have to, practically every day — the only way we’re going to begin to get comfortable with it is to get good at it.”
Grant says that to increase your chances of getting a “yes” from someone, you need to be confident, and you have to position your request so that the person finds it rewarding to help out. To do that, you need to be more compassionately direct, and you might have to rethink how you’ve been reaching out so far. Here are a few mistakes you could be making:
You don’t ask directly
When you get caught up in the feelings of stress and discomfort that come with reaching out, others may not understand what you’re asking of them, Grant says — and all too often, others are hesitant to help because the request was not direct enough. “Research shows that 90 percent of the help that co-workers give one another in the workplace is in response to explicit requests for help,” Grant explains. “So you’ll have to say the words, ‘I need your help.’” She also notes that many people suffer from the “illusion of transparency,” a psychological assumption where we mistakenly believe our thoughts and feelings are obvious to other people. “Even the people closest to you can struggle with how they can support you,” she notes. “If you need help, you’re going to have to ask for it.”
You apologize for asking
It’s common for people to add disclaimers or apologies into their requests for help, but doing so can make your request less effective, Grant says. “Stay away from opening phrases such as, ‘I’m sorry to ask you for this,’ or ‘I hate bothering you with this,’” as doing so can come across as vague and half-hearted. Grant also notes that when you feel the need to keep apologizing for asking, the person you’re asking feels awkward helping. “Sometimes it feels like people are so eager to prove that they’re not weak and greedy when they ask for your help, they’re completely missing out on how uncomfortable they’re making you feel,” she explains. “When you ask for help, be very specific about the help you want, and don’t apologize for it.”
You ask from behind a screen
It’s easy to Slack or email someone when you’re too embarrassed to ask for assistance in person, but Grant points out that it’s also easier for people to say “no” from behind a screen. “We like to ask for help over email or text because it feels less awkward for us to do so,” she points out. “But it’s important to use face time to make the request to ask for the help you need.” According to Grant, people in the workplace are more likely to offer help when they’re approached in person. “There’s research to support this,” she adds. “In-person requests for help are 30 times more likely to get a yes than a request made by email.” It may be easier or less stressful to type out a request for help, but making the effort to speak in person can mean the difference between a yes and a no.
You don’t follow up afterward
Another common mistake people make when asking for help actually occurs after the ask is complete and the person has helped you. “There’s a common misconception that what’s rewarding about helping is the act of helping itself, but this is not true,” Grant explains. “What’s rewarding about helping is knowing that your help landed — that it had impact.” Grant says you probably do not think to express your gratitude after someone helps you, and this mistake can hold you back from forming meaningful connections with co-workers, and getting help in the future. “When you ask someone for their help and they say yes, follow up with them afterward,” she urges. “Take time to tell your colleague that the help that they gave you really helped you.”
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