How to Ask for Help: A Beginner’s Guide
Help. It’s something we all need, but something we’re all hesitant to request.
You could even say this very website only exists to help you in ways the people in your life couldn’t – or wouldn’t. After all, it seems like many people think helping the helpless is a waste of time.
Still, we all need to ask for help sometimes. But while we know that we know this, we’re not so sure other people know as well.
There’s good news though.
The fact that so many people have trouble asking for help means at least as many people understand everyone needs a hand once in a while. Now we just need to get the bat off our collective shoulder.
Maybe you know what you’re supposed to do, and you just don’t know how to do it right or don’t even know where to begin. Whatever your needs are, here’s how to elicit the help you need.
Make It Clear You Have Tried
This isn’t the first step so much as it’s an overarching theme you’ll be inserting into every step you take.
We’ve all heard sayings like, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” or, “Help comes to those who help themselves.” While it’s easy to interpret those statements as actively discouraging asking for help, you need to remember this: people are really bad at words.
Sure, some people out there use those phrases to promote radical self-reliance, but many more mean it to discourage asking for help without already having tried your best.
What most people are really against is when someone acts like they’re entitled to assistance without even trying to fix the problem themselves. Of course, that’s much less catchy.
When asking for help, make it abundantly clear you’re asking because you’ve already encountered difficulty, not because you’re anticipating difficulty and you’re afraid to face it on your own.
For best results, say something direct along the lines of, “I’ve tried to do X, Y, and Z, but I’m having trouble […]” and explain what went wrong if you know what did.
Whatever you do, however, strike a balance and don’t do one of two things:
Don’t Be Vague and Don’t Be Overbearing
The easiest way to be denied help is by never outright saying, “I need help with this, can you help me?”
The person won’t know you’re asking for help if you just talk in circles about the troubles you’re having and never pop the magic question.
Whenever possible, be as specific as you can. If certain details are tripping you up, ask for help with those. If an entire concept is eluding you, then make that clear from the start. Don’t make it hard for them to help you.
The easiest way to have your helper regret helping you is to be annoying about it. Describe your problems in detail, but know when it’s time to stop, or the other person might think it’s turning into a pity party.
You also don’t want to be overly apologetic for wasting their time or overly appreciative for their assistance. As politely as we can put it, don’t be weird. It sounds obvious, but moments of desperation often see us act unlike ourselves.
You especially don’t want to do anything to impede their ability to help you. Don’t be one of those people who asks for help, only to tell their aide how to help them. If you’re going to play the role of the person who needs help, it’s best to stay in character.
Ask a Question, Don’t State a Statement
Imagine this scene played out:
“Hey, I need help.”
“Okay… Are you asking me to help you?”
Do you see how poorly that went over?
You need to phrase the question as a question to give the person you’re asking a chance to process your request. Even if you modify the statement to be more about the other person, it could come across as rude more than anything else.
“Hey, I need you to help me.”
“Okay… Are you not giving me a choice?”
Even if you do need help from that person specifically, you need to pose it as an option because nobody likes being told what to do. Your helper’s still under no obligation to help you if you make it unappealing enough.
But what if you’re convinced they are obligated to help you because of your past history with them? Well, about that…
Don’t Treat Help like a Currency
You may feel this person is obligated to help you because you did them a massive favor once. While we agree it would be nice of your helper to make it up to you, you can’t force them into it.
If you try to force it, your helper might resist simply out of disdain. The only time someone is required to help you is when you’re under a legal contract and you can take it to a courtroom.
Conversely, you may be setting yourself up for the opposite problem. Your pitch to get this person’s help may rely heavily on promises of you’ll “owe them one” or you’ll “pay them back.”
This again can quickly sound overbearing. The other person knows you’re under no requirement to make it up to them than they are to help you.
Besides, who knows what the future might bring? They might never need your help.
They also might wonder that if you’re so eager to say, “I’ll make it up to you!” now, if you’ll attempt to use that bargaining chip for future free favors which you’ll never pay back. This is social-credit skepticism in its purest form.
At this point, you might think the solution is to pitch the prospect of their help as something they’ll benefit from in and of itself. In this, you wouldn’t be wrong, but this is another thing you can easily overdo.
Don’t act like the experience of helping you will be the greatest, most exciting thing they’ll ever do. Instead, try to frame it as a subtle form of flattery: you’re asking them because you think they’re adept and this will be a perfect opportunity for them to teach you their skills (and hone their own teaching skills).
Pick the Right Person
While we’re talking about skills and expertise, you’re going to want to do your best to choose the right person to ask for help. It’s a given they should be good at what you need assistance with, but that shouldn’t be the only criteria if you can help it.
We acknowledged earlier there are indeed people who are genuinely opposed to helping people, but luckily those people are rare in the grand scheme of things. Yet thinking that helping enables laziness isn’t the only reason someone would decline helping you.
It could be you don’t know them well enough for the size of the task you need help with; you might give a passing acquaintance a ride or share their crowdfunding campaign, but would you agree to meticulously review their portfolio?
Maybe, unbeknownst to you, they’re having the same problems you are. Some people are too busy, others are preoccupied by bigger personal troubles, and still others simply don’t feel confident enough to help you. In general, most people do like to help others, but sometimes there’s nothing they can do.
That’s why you’re going to want to try to find someone who is skilled, knowledgeable, friendly, familiar, available, confident, ready, willing, and able.
In a perfect world, we would each have somebody like that in our lives. But even if you’re fortunate enough to have perfect rapport with a friend or family member, they won’t always have all the answers.
Ultimately, you’re going to want to try to find someone who can check all the boxes. If you’re lucky, it will be someone who already doesn’t mind helping you and to whom you already wouldn’t mind returning the favor.
But be open to the idea of receiving help from someone you don’t expect. For all you know, this could be somebody you might be tight with after all of this is said and done.
One last thing of note: if you’re absolutely dead-set on asking multiple people, ask them separately and synthesize the advice they give you.
Don’t ask them as a group, because they’ll inevitably disagree with one another on something. This can be a stalemate at best, a battle of egos at worst, and confusing all the same.
Don’t Take It Too Personally
How could you take asking someone else for help too personally? You make it too much about you. But isn’t this all about you and your problems by its very nature? Yes, but try to reconsider who (or what) is the main character.
You see, there are people who are ashamed to ask for help, and there are people who feel empowered to do it.
The ones who feel empowered do so because they don’t see it as a story of making up for personal failures, but rather as a story of an obstacle being overcome by an underdog and their trusted ally. That way it’s not a downer, but an inspiration. Who doesn’t want to see the underdog win?
Don’t Overthink It
You may have noticed a recurring theme throughout all of this: don’t make one mistake, but don’t overcorrect and make the opposite mistake. Simply put, don’t overcomplicate it.
Just remember to deliver your request with a bit more urgency than regular conversation, but not as urgent as an immediate emergency.
If nothing else, think of it this way: if someone else were to ask you for help, how would you want them to ask? Would you say your answer to that question is typical to how most others would answer? Then just be like that person you imagine asking you. The best you can do is be the kind of person you would want others to be.
In all likelihood, the person you’re asking for help will say yes. It’s not certain, but it’s probable.
If nothing else, imagine that when you ask, you’re either going to get the help you need or you’ll be spared from someone who probably wouldn’t have been very helpful anyway.