The Art of Asking for Help: Part One of Three


Part I: When to Ask for Help

One of the most important ways humans communicate is by asking for help. In fact, asking for guidance is probably one of the main reasons our ancestors crossed oceans, overcame language barriers, and figured out how to launch our species into space. You would think that, by now, we would be pretty good at asking for help. You would think.

If we have been asking and giving assistance to one another for millennia, why does it often feel uncomfortable? As a culture, we need to address why so many people would rather expend twice as much energy fumbling through a problem rather than just knocking on someone’s door and asking for help.

A ‘Go it Alone’ Society

At the root of communication lies questions. In fact, there cannot be any real communication without questions. They are the foundation on which the structure of verbal interaction is built. Communication is often a balanced dance of questions and statements, and the status quo is that we receive equally as we give.

When we need help in the workplace, we subconsciously believe that we are upending this tried and true routine, this acceptable give and take approach. The status quo is the boat, and most people don’t rock the boat. Asking for help at work means approaching someone and asking them to give us their time and their knowledge. Doing this scares many people so much that they choose to sit in the boat and row in silence. This is truly a shame - because they are doing themselves and their colleagues a disservice by maintaining a system that pits people against one another out of fear. This is the boat that will eventually sink.

Society will tell you that to get ahead, you have to grit your teeth and bear it alone. That asking for help is weak. In reality, self-reliance is built on accepting your own vulnerability sometimes - we have to be okay with revealing that we don’t know everything if we want to know more tomorrow than we do today.

The trick is knowing when to ask questions, who to go to for assistance, and how to ask for help. In this first part of our three-part series, we’re going to focus on knowing when it’s time to phone a friend.

When to Ask for Help

Brainstorming solutions is a must!

Brainstorming solutions is a must!

When faced with a formidable problem at work that you cannot seem to solve, you probably need to ask for help.

First, take a few moments to brainstorm all the ways in which you could potentially solve this problem on your own. Although it’s likely you have already tried a few things, brainstorming with good old pen and paper is a fantastic way to open up the blocked channels of your mind. This is a critical step, as asking for help without first trying to help yourself may reflect poorly on your ability to problem-solve. You have to take the reasonable options of solving the dilemma on your own.

Note the word reasonable: No one expects nor wants you to waste time spinning your wheels unnecessarily (see boat analogy above). Examples of reasonable approaches vary on the urgency and nature of the problem, but in most circumstances a reasonable approach is one that doesn’t take a considerable amount of time to research, doesn’t have a negative effect on the quality or output of your work, doesn’t cause you or others distress or harm, and doesn’t effect your coworker’s ability to perform their roles as usual. Again, the minutia can change, making the brainstorming a critical part of this process - especially because we are often capable of more than we give ourselves credit for.

Once you are confident that you need help, you may be tempted to walk down the hall to your boss or send an email to HR. You’re not quite there, yet. The next thing you need to do is figure out the best person to ask - and it’s not always who you might assume.

Sign up for our Tips & Tricks on the Anthology Writing & Communication homepage to make sure you have access to part two of this series, Who to Ask for Help, which will be published soon!