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How to Ask for Help

Learn to communicate skillfully with others so you can get the help you need.

Key points

  • Many people don't like asking for help, having been taught it's a sign of weakness. Therefore, practice is necessary.
  • When someone offers help, the responsibility is on the other person to follow up.
  • When asking for help, making a specific request is likely to be more successful.

How many times have you said to a friend or relative in need, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help," and when you didn't hear back, fail to follow up? I've lost count of the number of times I did just that—fail to follow up when I didn't hear back from someone in need, even though I would have been happy to help in any way I could. Yet, despite this pattern in my own behavior, when I became chronically ill and didn't get back to people who offered to help, I decided that, because they failed to follow up, their offers weren't sincere.

I learned otherwise quite by chance. A friend came to visit and showed me an exquisite handmade dress she'd just bought for her granddaughter at a local boutique. When I told her how much I loved it, she asked if I'd like to get one for my granddaughter. I said "sure," and before I could get "but I'm not able to go shopping" out of my mouth, she was out the door.

She returned shortly with the dress in two sizes for me to choose from. I picked one, wrote her a check, and when she left to go home, she took the one I didn't want back to the boutique. That made three trips for her to the same store that day.

When I got sick, was she one of the people who had said, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help"? Yes. But I'd never asked her to do anything. On that day, however, I saw on her face that going to get that dress was a gift from me to her. She can't restore my health, but she can buy a dress for me to give to my granddaughter, and doing it made her feel terrific.

Here's what I've learned about people who offer to help:

  1. They're sincere in their offer: they mean it.
  2. The responsibility falls on me, not on them, to follow up.
  3. The best way to take them up on their offer is to give them a specific task to do.

Numbers 1 and 2 are consistent with my experience when I was in a position to help others: I meant it but I rarely followed up, sometimes because I got distracted and sometimes because I thought I might be bothering them.

As for number 3, friends and relatives aren't mind readers. We need to tell them what to do. I learned that from the "dress episode" with my friend.

And, the more specific the request, the better. "Can you help with my laundry every other week?" is more likely to be successful as a request than, "Can you help with my laundry sometimes?" even though your friend or relative is likely to say "yes" to both requests. The use of the word "sometimes" in the second request is likely to be a "set-up" for that lack of follow-up that we'll erroneously take as a lack of sincerity on their part.

Many of us don't like to ask for help. We may have been taught that it's a sign of weakness, so we cling to the notion, "I can do everything myself," even if it's no longer the case.

I suggest you practice asking for help. Think of it as an experiment:

  1. Make a list of what you need help with: particular errands, the laundry, some cooking, walking the dog, changing a light bulb, or maybe even a shoulder to cry on.
  2. Write down the names of friends and relatives who have offered to help, even if their offer was made quite a while ago.
  3. Match people with tasks based on their interests, their strengths, their time flexibility, and your comfort level with them, given the intimacy of the particular task. A young neighbor may enjoy cooking for you once a week. I read about a woman who gets cooking help from a 10-year-old neighbor who has earned her Girl Scout cooking badge. We have a 12-year-old dog walker in our neighborhood.
  4. Pick just one thing off the list and contact the person you've chosen. Be direct. So, instead of saying, "If I only knew someone who could take this coat to the cleaners," ask outright: "Can you take this coat to the cleaners for me? I'm not well enough to go out."

The person you've called or emailed is likely to be thrilled to finally be able to help. If you strike out, muster the courage to try again. You may think you're placing a burden on the person you've contacted, yet if you did the very same thing for that person, you wouldn't consider it a, go for it.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard

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