Communication

The Art of Asking for Help: Part One of Three

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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!

Communication by Design

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Whether your organization is made up of three people or relies on the talents of three-thousand, it undoubtedly has a communication style that is woven into all interactions. Whether internal or external, your unique “current” of communication is arguably one of your strongest identifiers. The manner and style with which you communicate is felt and shared by every person on the team, replicating itself until it has permeated nearly every aspect of your business.

In fact, your organization’s communication patterns are like fingerprints; they’re the invisible identity your business carries with it into every interaction.

Communication Patterns

If you think about some of the relationships in your life, such as with friends, co-workers, or family, you’ll realize that you communicate in a slightly different way with each. Businesses work this way, as well, except the workplace is a complicated relationship made up of multiple people. Over time, the manner and style in which information is shared starts to “set,” eventually establishing the tone for everything from meetings to Friday happy hours.

From the work I’ve done with a wide variety of businesses, I’ve come to believe that these communication patterns are immensely critical to both employee and customer satisfaction. Break-downs or ambiguity in communication protocols can completely disrupt a business’s ability to evolve. On a personal level, poor communication patterns can cause internal negativity and high turn-over rates. Externally, they can cause the loss of clients and the degradation of reputation.

The good news, however, is that it’s never to late to work on reshaping your communication patterns. Below, we’ll discuss a high-level approach to getting started.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall……

First and foremost, you’ll need to take a good, long look at your department, team, or organization as a whole – depending on your role or where you decide to begin. I suggest making note of all the great communication traits you have as the first exercise, only moving into what needs improvement after you’ve covered everything that’s working well.

Communication is a BIG topic – certainly larger than can be completely covered in a blog post. To address communication patterns at a large organization can be an involved undertaking and will likely require multiple champions or third-party assistance. However, from a high-level starting point, there are six main areas of your business to consider – and I bet at least a couple of them will seem a bit odd at first! You’ll want to look at each twice, however, once from an internal perspective and once from an external lens.

The six areas are as follows, along with a few questions to be addressed for each:

  1. Meetings: Internally, how often are meetings held and why? Are the meetings more to benefit management or team members? Are agendas clearly communicated beforehand? Are discussions followed up with action items or outcomes? Does everyone feel equally permitted to contribute, and do they want to? Are meetings consistent or unpredictable? Is there a formal process in place for annual reviews, and could it be improved upon?

  2. Content and Intellectual Property: Is company documentation static or interactive? Has it evolved alongside of the company? Are content and ideas saved, organized, and communicated by design, or by default?

  3. Marketing: How often and why is messaging developed? Does it communicate your unique value? In larger companies with marketing departments, do they practice internal marketing or just external marketing? In smaller companies, has marketing become an after-thought?

  4. Social Events: Are social events planned for fun and relationship building? Is it hard for new people to acclimate? How often do employees get together? Do you make time to form relationships with clients? Do you communicate social situations so they are inclusive?

  5. Business Celebrations: Do you celebrate and encourage one another? Do you acknowledge successes and milestones with clients? Do you celebrate personal events among employees, such as birthdays?

  6. Feedback Forums: Is communication a one-way street, or do employees have forums to share or spearhead new ideas? Does the company conduct exit interviews? Are new positions filled internally before advertised externally? Do clients have the opportunity to provide feedback?

The example questions above – some internal and some external – are just a few of the questions that might come up. Brainstorming may take a day or a year depending on the size and type of organization; the key is to get a thorough picture of all the communication patterns at play so you can understand how to eventually build upon what is working.

Communication By Design

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Addressing each one of these areas first internally, then externally, will help you gauge the communication patterns influencing your business relationships. As mentioned, – and this is important – focus on the positive first! These are the traits that you will use as examples for other areas of your organization that might need some help. Take what makes you unique, weave it into your communication patterns, and build in consistency. Once brainstorming is complete and it’s time to start making changes, start small – maybe with just one meeting – and develop new patterns over time. Serve as an example of the patterns you are trying to establish, and truly incorporate feedback into your plans.

Hopefully, by thinking about how communication patterns effect every aspect of your business, and then spending time to analyze their effects in the major areas of your operation, you can begin to build a communication plan by design.