What’s so hard about asking for help?

656503534_95363638d2I have a guest blog up at Forensic Focus, a riff on the impostor syndrome topic I’ve written about previously. I want to add to those thoughts by talking specifically about a more hidden issue that goes broader and deeper than impostor syndrome: the notion of asking for help.

Far from being an affront to the concept of Rugged Individualism or an appalling cover for mooching off the hard-won efforts of others, asking for help can be the difference between a string of jobs and a good career, a good versus a great manuscript, or an overworked and stressed parent versus one who, while still overworked and stressed, at least feels a little more balanced.

And yet, one of the most oft-repeated pieces of advice you’re likely to hear at any new endeavor — job, parenting, school — is, indeed, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” The fact that it’s repeated so often indicates that many people are, in fact, afraid to ask for help.

Why don’t we feel worthy?

It isn’t just risking a verbal sneer from That Guy on the forums or listservs who always manages to treat you like you have no business leaving the kids’ table for the adults’ (although that’s never easy to take). That Guy is really just part of the much larger trend towards online shaming, which is, though shameful in itself, not personal.

For me, and I suspect for many others, the fear of being unworthy goes much deeper than that. It has multiple facets, all of which boil down to one thing: my own perception that I haven’t yet figured out how to reciprocate — to give back something of equal value, to make it worth another person’s while to take time out of their schedule for me.

When I’m in the grips of this perception, I think: “Nah, they’re way too busy. I’ll just be pestering them.”

Or: “This idea isn’t baked enough, I can’t figure out how to frame it, and the person I want to approach won’t have the time or energy to brainstorm with me.” (Folks, this is where good ideas go to die.)

Or: “Everyone will think I’m lazy.” (You know, when That Guy admonishes you for not Googling the answer yourself, without considering that maybe you didn’t find the answer you were looking for, or that you’re specifically seeking the perspectives of people you know and trust.)

(Underlying all of this: a fear that I won’t ever be able to reciprocate, which of course, goes back to impostor syndrome: a pervasive belief that I’m not good enough to be able to adequately reciprocate.)

Business blogger Liz Strauss put it a different way as she explained the difference between the outcomes of two separate business meetings in her professional past:

I realized that on the first trip I’d been talking to those CEOs and SVPs as colleagues and partners and on the second trip I’d been putting everyone in the room on a platform above me.

It’s hard to offer value when you feel smaller — when you put the rest of the world above you.

Liz framed this in terms of needing “a person who won’t let you fail.” In my experience, such people have been few and far between… but I think that’s because I’ve inadvertently set myself up to miss them, to miss the opportunity in working with them.

Making yourself worthy

There is no other way to find these people and opportunities than to put yourself out there. I’ve found this to be of critical importance as I search for a job following a layoff: striking up conversations with strangers — completely out of character for me — seeing where the path of conversation leads, trying to put together those pathways with the disparate threads of my freelance-to-marketing career.

I think too often that we get hung up thinking we have to have some kind of expertise to reciprocate, without realizing that sometimes, the reciprocation lies in the act of helping itself. You don’t necessarily have to know or be able to articulate what this other person might get out of helping you; sometimes, they just want to. Either they’ve reached where they are with the help of others and want to pay it forward; or they’ve seen something in you they like, and they’re willing to take the chance. (Be wary, either way, of those who would attach strings or otherwise take advantage.)

In other words, we think too much about the costs of helping, and not enough about the costs of not helping.

Optimize for the cost of saying “no”

You can’t predict what’s going to make a person say “yes.” One person’s cost of saying no isn’t the same as another’s. At that point, it’s in your best interest to have at least some idea of where your needs and their interests align. When you recognize that there is work to be done, that you’ve hit a brick wall and have no idea how to scale it, what is it about this other person that makes you want their help, specifically?

In a world where “Don’t take it personally” is sound business advice, in other words, make it personal. Don’t just contact them because they appear to be the kind of guru whose brain you want to pick; study their LinkedIn profile, their Twitter account, any articles they’ve written lately, what they’re interested in.

This shouldn’t take long! Just as a coworker once told me to stop thinking things through so carefully and go out on a limb more often with my ideas, don’t overthink your value proposition to others. Just be able to articulate it. Hypothesize why helping you will help them, and invite them to test that hypothesis together.

The result may only be transactional. The other person may even say no. But the more people you ask, the more willing you are to invite others into your life, the higher likelihood you’ll have of building long-term relationships with the very people who won’t let you fail.

photo credit: pull for help via photopin (license)

2 thoughts on “What’s so hard about asking for help?

  1. I completely agree that it’s really difficult to ask for help, I’ve been terrible at it throughout my life. Recently I’ve gotten a bit better though, and one of the reasons for that is that I’ve become frustrated when people haven’t asked *me* for help, or have refused help when I’ve offered it. It took decades, but I’m finally realising that other people might be just as willing to help as I am, and that letting them do so might bring as much to their lives as it does to mine.

  2. I was once listening to a conversation, during which an analyst (with an advanced degree) was describing analysis they had completed (and provided a report to the client). During that conversation, the analyst stated, “I saw something that I didn’t recognize or understand, but never pursued it.”

    When I was on the IBM ERS team, there were junior analysts who wouldn’t ask for help, for fear of “looking dumb” to the more senior members. What this meant was that the quality of their analysis, and hence their report to the client, suffered. Or perhaps, rather than asking a question and letting the senior folks know that they didn’t know something, it was better to not ask and send the report to the client, who likely wouldn’t know any better.

    I’ve always had a great deal of respect for anyone who has asked for assistance.

    I also know that, for whatever reason, many analysts who have asked for assistance have been very much put off by me asking, ‘what version of Windows are you looking at?’ For some reason, this seems to really offend people, and I’m not sure why. The simple fact is that it matters, very often a great deal.

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