Why is it that the phrase “if you need any help, just ask” manages to stir such complex emotions in people? Is it a genuine offer, or is the person just saying that because it is expected? Will she think less of you if you take her up on it? If it’s your boss, will she have second thoughts about hiring you if you ask for help?
In her new book, Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, social psychologist Heidi Grant offers insights on how to ask for help from family, friends and colleagues.
Recognizing that you need assistance is an objective and mature observation. Yet, social psychology research has shown that the act of asking for help makes people very uncomfortable. We judge ourselves negatively for needing the help, and we wrongly anticipate negative reactions from those we are asking to help.
Grant argues that this emotional turmoil produces precisely what we fear the most. We get squeamish and apologetic, anticipate objections that aren’t even there, and leave everyone involved confused or even offended by the entire experience.
This creates a frustrating paradox. Psychologically, we are wired to be helpful, and our work environments are becoming increasingly collaborative. Unfortunately, any lack of skill and experience in the mechanics of seeking assistance can undermine any attempt at collaboration.
Grant suggests that most of the psychological stress occurs before we even ask for assistance. We assume that needing help will make us feel bad, since we failed to complete the task on our own. We assume that the person we will need assistance from will say no, even if that person has helped us in the past. We assume that our peer group will think less of us both for needing help and for the act of asking for that help.
When success in our modern work environment is so dependent on the cooperation and support of others, this emotional stress (often manifested in lightheadedness, nausea, sweating and even fainting) can directly impact personal career success as well as corporate productivity.
Four Steps to Getting the Help You Need
Grant identifies another erroneous assumption that can complicate any request for help –– people are simply unaware of your need because they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them. It’s not indifference or a calculated choice to let you fail; “they are preoccupied with their own stuff.” Starting with this foundational premise, the author proposes a simple four-step process to getting the help you need:
1. The helper needs to notice that you might need help. Hoping that your colleague will see that you are stressed/overwhelmed/unhappy will not work. Ironically, those with the greatest means to help you are also the most likely to be oblivious to that need.
2. The helper needs to believe that you desire help. Negative assumptions can be prevalent on both sides. The helper might assume that you would be offended if she offered assistance before being asked.
3. The helper needs to take responsibility for helping. “The more people there are who could help, the less clear it is to everyone involved who should help.” Don’t make a general appeal for help through a group email; ask individuals directly.
4. The helper needs to be able to provide the help you need. Put yourself in the helper’s shoes, and be “explicit and detailed” in your request. Emails or hallway conversations seeking “help with something” will lead to confusion and create awkwardness as the helper errs on the side of caution and declines to offer assistance rather than risk getting involved in a vague project.
Reinforcements provides a compelling mix of science, theory and practical advice on navigating the social psychology of asking for help. Grant’s use of humor and storytelling will show you how to reach out to family, friends and colleagues for help, without the risk of damaging those relationships in the process.