4 Tips to Effectively Ask for Help—and Get a Yes

Social psychology shows people are eager to help—if you know how to ask.

Posted Feb 28, 2020

Photo by kieferpix. Adobe Stock.
Source: Photo by kieferpix. Adobe Stock.

If you’ve ever glanced at the acknowledgments section of a good book, or listened to an Academy Awards acceptance speech, you know that no one achieves great things in a vacuum. Even with these seemingly individual accomplishments, there are countless people behind the scenes offering their skills, insights, and expertise to propel someone else into the limelight.

As highly social animals, we humans depend on one another to learn and grow. What’s more, research shows that helping others actually makes us feel good and that generosity is likely an important evolutionary adaptation for our species. If we are hardwired for altruism, why then is it so uncomfortable for us to ask for help?

In a society that praises self-help and self-reliance, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to ask our colleagues, friends, and even our family for the assistance we need. The mere thought of asking for help can eat away at our ego, undermine our confidence, make us question our abilities, and even paralyze us with anxiety. Yet in modern life—at a time when we are more digitally connected and emotionally detached than ever—the stark reality is that no one can go it alone.

Learning how to ask for (and accept) help is perhaps one of the greatest skills you can develop. Luckily, new research shows that asking for and actually getting help is a lot easier and less daunting than it seems 

But first, let’s examine our contradictory reluctance to take advantage of this evolutionary altruism.

Why Is Asking for Help So Hard?

The primary reason is fear. We fear that we’ll be turned down, laughed at, or revealed to be a fraud. Though these fears are usually unfounded, we are loathe to ask for help because this seemingly simple act carries a number of high social risks: rejection, vulnerability, diminished status, and the inherent relinquishing of control. In the face of these threats, fear overrides reason and, as studies in neuroscience show, this risk of emotional pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain.

Another reason why asking for help seems so hard is that we are pretty terrible at articulating our needs in a way that someone can offer constructive aid. This is partially due to a cognitive bias that social psychologists call the illusion of transparency, or the mistaken belief that our feelings, thoughts, and needs are obvious to other people. Too often, we wait for someone to notice our telepathic plea for help and inevitably get frustrated when no one does. 

It should go without saying that in order to receive help, you often have to ask for it. The high stakes and awkwardness of asking in our highly individualistic culture pose obstacles for many of us. But the best way to get more comfortable asking for help is to get better at it.

4 Tips to Ask for (and Get) Help

Here are some simple tips to empower you to effectively ask for the help you need, and ensure that you get a yes in response to your thoughtful request.

1. Be concise and specific. Asking for and offering help can only be productive under one crucial condition: clear communication. Try to communicate your request as clearly and concisely as possible. There is no need to over-explain: simply describe what the task is, why it matters, and how the person you’re asking can contribute. Try to be as specific as possible so they know exactly what it is they will need to do and can accurately judge how much time and energy the task will take.

Furthermore, be willing to negotiate. Let them decide how much support they can offer and try to find a mutually beneficial solution.

2. Don’t apologize. Don’t apologize for asking for help. No one gets excited about a task that the asker feels the need to apologize for. We all need help sometimes and it's nothing to be ashamed of—but apologizing makes it seem like you’re doing something wrong by asking and casts the task at hand in a negative light. 

On that note, don’t minimize your need with phrases like “I hate to ask...” or “It’s just a small thing.” This suggests that their assistance is trivial and takes the joyous sense of accomplishment out of helping. After all, how am I supposed to feel if you “hate to ask” for my assistance? Similarly, don’t ask them to do you a favor. This can make people feel obliged to say yes.

3. Make it personal, not transactional. Don’t ask for help over email or text. Though it’s easier to send a written request, it’s also a lot easier to say no to one. Try to speak face to face or call. Studies show that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful!

Make your request more personal by explaining why the person’s skills or expertise make them uniquely suited to this task. This casts them as a helpful person and not just another person you can resort to for help. Studies show that when people are asked to “be a generous donor”—rather than simply asked to donate—they are more likely to say yes and donate larger sums.

Finally, don’t emphasize reciprocity. While we tend to think that sweetening the deal with the promise of a returned favor is a good strategy, this kind of language makes your request feel transactional. People don’t like feeling indebted to others, and others are more likely to help you if you show genuine appreciation for their aid rather than assign their efforts a monetary value. 

4. Follow up with results. Beyond expressing your gratitude, you should follow up with the helper to share the tangible results of their aid. As much as we’d like to think that acts of generosity are their own reward, the reality is that people long to feel effective. We want to feel that the work we do and the help we give matters. Take the time to show the people who help you why their support not only matters to you, but how it makes a larger impact on your life, work, or community.

Next time you think you need some help, remember that there are more people than you think who are eager to lend a hand. More importantly, use these suggestions to ask in a way that empowers you and the person you’re asking to reap the rewards of generosity and collaboration

A version of this posr originally appeared on LinkedIn.

References

Allen, Summer. “The Science of Generosity.” A white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. May 2018. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Generosity-FINAL.pdf.

Bohns, Vanessa K. “(Mis)Understanding Our Influence Over Others: A Review of the Underestimation-of-Compliance Effect - Vanessa K. Bohns, 2016.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721415628011.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2011). Why rejection hurts: What social neuroscience has revealed about the brain's response to social rejection. In J. Decety & J. T. Cacioppo (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of social neuroscience (p. 586–598). Oxford University Press.

Roghanizad, M. Mahdi, and Vanessa K. Bohns. “Ask in Person: You're Less Persuasive than You Think over Email.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Academic Press, 10 Oct. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S002210311630292X.