Hackernoon logoAsking for Help the Right Way by@vinitabansal

Asking for Help the Right Way

Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations. As a child, I don’t remember dealing with any painful emotion while asking for help, worrying about what it would do to my self-esteem or damaging effect it can have on the image I have built for myself. Asking for help signals self-awareness of our own limitations, humility to accept what we don't know, and the courage to ask for it. Asking is more about other person than it’s about you - their abilities and expertise that may be useful to others.
Vinita Bansal Hacker Noon profile picture

Vinita Bansal

Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations

When we were small, we asked for help all the time. Dependent on our parents, friends, teachers, and siblings to help us navigate the complexities of life, asking for help seemed like the most natural thing to do. As a child, I don’t remember dealing with any painful emotion while asking for help, worrying about what it would do to my self-esteem or the damaging effect it can have on the image I have built for myself. I was simply happy to learn from everyone around me, knowing I could rely on people to give me useful advice when I needed one. Indeed, the best feeling in the world.

Yet, somewhere along the way, the meaning of help changed. I had caught on to the bug of independence and individualism. Asking for help became less about learning and more about my identity. It made me question my own abilities. Will it make me look weak or incompetent? Will others think less of me if they find me dependent? Will people question my intelligence and smartness? I would much rather struggle through a task and waste countless hours without accomplishing anything than approach someone. I was hungry for information but ready to stay foolish.  

Uncertainty of the outcome, risk of rejection, fear of looking vulnerable or appearing needy was a very real feeling. I had mistakenly fallen prey to the myth as Brene Brown says in Rising Strong, “that successful people are those that help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”

I was so stuck in the mindset that I didn’t realize that the real risk of asking for help wasn’t receiving criticism, facing rejection, or the feeling of shame in expressing what I don’t know. It was not finding my way to the advice I needed to move forward. I let my ego drive me for a long time while letting many opportunities slip by.  

That was years ago. The child within me demanded to go back to those carefree days when asking for help was just that “ask” and nothing more. I grappled with my fixed mindset for too long, but it was time to put it to rest. I learned to look past my fears into the value of seeking advice, reached out when I wasn’t making progress, and asked others for information I didn’t know. With less fixation on my feelings and more on what I wanted to achieve, the decision was simple - I couldn’t do it alone. No one can. 

Every major achievement requires collaboration across ideas, people, and processes. Sometimes you need the information, at other times people’s expertise, sometimes a buy-in on an idea or a project. Achieving success isn’t about working on our own. It requires working with others. Others can help us see what we are otherwise not able to see. Some of the most admired and successful people in the world do this: they constantly ask for help. 

Sit within your comfort zone, don’t ask for assistance, and stay where you are or break out of your self-imposed limits. Experience the joy in working with others and move forward. You can either be paralyzed by fear of asking for help and sit frozen before the many obstacles that lie ahead of you, or you can act. Choose. 

Asking for help is a strength

In a speech addressed to students, Barack Obama said:

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Absolutely. Asking for help signals self-awareness of our own limitations, humility to accept what we don’t know, and the courage to ask for it. It’s a sign that we are confident in our abilities to tackle whatever is standing in our way to get to where we need to go. Hardly anything about it says we are weak, incompetent, stupid or foolish. 

Look at it another way, when you ask for assistance, what’s the message you convey - This is where I am. This is where I need to go. It’s important to me. I believe you may have the knowledge I need to move forward.

Asking for help is more about the other person than it’s about you - their abilities and expertise that may be useful to others. An opportunity for them to put their knowledge to use, build trust and strengthen the relationship. Feel good about their contribution, feel positive about the difference they are making, and in the process, feel good about themselves. Yes, research shows that human beings find great pleasure in helping others. It’s the secret to living a more productive and meaningful life.

Shifting your focus from what you need to how the other person can help can be a powerful motivator in seeking the right kind of help - what are the qualities I am looking for in the other person, how can they be useful in solving this problem, what data or information they might need, what questions can they ask, have I tried everything before approaching them?

No longer ruminating about whether to ask for help or not, you are now in action mode. Doing the things you need to do to advance in your goals. You have shifted your perspective and turned what you once considered a weakness into strength. You no longer sit on projects for weeks because you were reluctant to ask for help. Having done your work, you know when it’s time to get a new perspective. You aren’t afraid to explore a fresh idea or try a different strategy. 

Having attained confident humility, you are now in the sweet spot of confidence, as Adam Grant says in Think Again -

You have faith in your capability while appreciating that you may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. It gives you enough doubt to reexamine your old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights

Now, let's get to the real part. Actually asking for help. An effective and careful approach requires answering - Who can help, How to say it, How to act, and What to do later.

The right and wrong ways of asking for help

We will cover 4 steps in the process of asking for help using the mistakes in each one as an example of how to do it the right way. 

1. Explicitly ask for it

Most of us live with an illusion of transparency, believing that our thoughts, needs, and feelings are as obvious to others as they are to us. It’s obvious to us. Not so much to others. People can’t read our minds and predict what we need. Waiting around for others to notice our needs and then offer help is only going to lead to disappointment. We aren’t going to get any help unless we let people know that we need help. Unless we explicitly ask for it. 

We are also good at finding excuses on why we can’t get the help we need without putting in the effort - People around me can’t really help! They don’t know what I need! Don’t fall for it. Don’t quit before trying. Don’t make excuses for not making the request. Utilize your network that you put so much time into building - activate your weak connections, reach out to your dormant ties. Don’t make false assumptions around who can and can’t be useful. You will be surprised to find help where you least expected. 

Studies also show that we typically underestimate how likely others are to help us and overestimate how likely others will come to us for help, said Frank Flynn, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. He adds:

This means not only are people not asking for help when in fact they could get it, but they’re not encouraging others to come to them for help when in fact they’re willing to offer it. That tells us that the ‘open-door’ policy is basically ineffective unless people are actively encouraged to use it.

Get up, look around, and put in the effort to connect and get the help you need. You are going to get nothing if you do nothing. 

2. State it as you need it

Even when the agenda is crystal clear in our minds, we approach others with a sense of secrecy - Would love to get together and catch up! Let’s chat! Let’s connect over coffee! Want to pick your brain!

We prefer vagueness over directness as if the information we have shouldn’t be shared right away. We kind of assume that it’s a better idea to beat around the bush instead of being direct in asking for help. 

Heidi Grant, a social psychologist, says:

Such vague requests are just terrible.

In her book, Reinforcements, she advises being specific and direct - state what you want and why you want it. “I need your help on” or “I want to connect to get your advice” or “I want us to work together on this project.

Heidi Grant says that another mistake we make is using phrases that make the conversation unproductive. Don’t trivialize the request or make it unnecessary by saying, “I feel terrible asking you for this” or “I don’t normally ask for help.” Why should the other person give you their time when you feel so bad about the idea of asking for help? She says that using statements that make the other person feel trapped, are the worst - It’s just this tiny thing! May I ask you a favor! You want them to commit without really knowing what they are getting into. 

Make it easy for the other person to decide if they can offer help. What’s the point in tricking them into saying a “yes” when they can’t really be effective in helping you with your problem? Give them the details and let them decide - do I have the information this person needs, will I be effective, do I have the time, is there someone else better suited to help out? Thinking through these questions will enable them to do the right thing instead of offering help even when they aren’t in a position to help out. 

Keeping it too vague or too open-ended can prevent them from making the right decision. What’s the point in a half-hearted commitment? They won’t be motivated to solve your problem. Treating it like a burden, they will try to get away with it - anything to seal the deal and get going. 

People are motivated to help and will do everything to assist in the best possible manner when they feel in control of the decision - not because you need help, but because they want to help. If they refuse to help, don’t take it personally. Be positive and understanding. Move on to someone else. 

It's hard enough to give fearlessly, and it's even harder to receive fearlessly.
But within that exchange lies the hardest thing of all:
To ask. Without shame.
And to accept the help that people offer.
Not to force them.
Just to let them
― Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

3. Put it into action

Your work is not done. It’s just begun. You reached out for help and got the advice you needed to move forward. But do you agree with it? You don’t have to comply out of an obligation. Most people find it healthy when others disagree with them. Rather, they don’t expect you to do everything they suggest. Speak to them, put forward your viewpoint, discuss why the idea doesn’t connect with you or what other alternatives are possible. Don’t let things hang. Either decide to implement the idea or explore other possibilities. 

Once you have an idea that clicks, make an effort to actually put it into action. Delaying tactics never really work. I will do it someday turns into “It’s never going to happen.” You may feel uncertain about the outcome, fear how this decision will turn out, or worry about putting in so much effort, but you will not know unless you put it into action. 

Create a plan - when, where, and how exactly are you going to act on it. Set it up on your calendar so that you don’t have to make a daily decision. When it pops out, know it’s time to act. “When we get distracted, when we start caring about something other than our own progress and efforts, the process is helpful, if occasionally bossy, the voice in our head,” says Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is The Way.

It is the bark of the wise, older leader who knows exactly who he is and what he’s got to do: Shut up. Go back to your stations and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves instead of worrying about what’s going on out there. You know what your job is. Stop jawing and get to work. The process is the voice that demands we take responsibility and ownership. That prompts us to act even if only in a small way - Ryan Holiday

4. Share your learnings 

Once you have the information you need, do you bother to let them know how it all worked out? You may not get the results you wanted or maybe you did or maybe it worked out much better than you expected. But do you take time to share these learnings with the person who helped you in the first place? We assume that people are too busy and don’t really care about it. We are absolutely wrong. 

People like to know the impact they have created. It’s what motivates them to help. Knowing what worked and what didn’t work not only helps you learn and grow, it helps them too. They aren’t perfect and everything they say isn’t guaranteed to work out either. Feedback loop from the people who took their advice and implemented it is a powerful source for them to know the effectiveness of their advice. It shows that you are not only invested in solving your problem, but care about them too. 

They are more likely to help out a second time around when you keep the relationship going instead of cutting off the ties as soon as you have the information you need. You can help yourself by helping them.  

Do you see how the whole experience of asking for help shapes you as a person? You not only learn new strategies, you also develop more confidence in your ability to experiment, try and do absolutely everything possible to move forward in your goals. You aren’t reluctant to seek help, more help, better help.  


Asking for help does not reflect on your competence, nor does it signal you are stupid. It’s a sign you are confident in your abilities and self-aware to seek help in areas where you need it. The right way to ask for help involves:

1. Explicitly ask for it: Don’t assume people are mind readers. You aren’t going to get any help unless you explicitly ask for it. Make fewer assumptions, put in more effort. 

2. State it as you mean it: Be specific. Be clear. Don’t be cryptic. Make it easy for the other person to decide if they can offer help or not. You need commitment, not charity. 

3. Put it into action: The problem you are facing won’t resolve itself unless you act on it. Don’t agree to disagree. Disagree and commit. Commit to a process to put their advice into action. 

4. Share your learnings: Keep the relationship going. Don’t end it once you have the information you need. Help yourself by helping them learn about the outcome.

Previously published on https://www.techtello.com/how-to-ask-for-help/.


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