The Art of Asking: Why is it So Hard to Ask for Help?

Have you ever seen someone who needs help, but hasn’t asked for it?

We see this a lot while we’re playing the Empathy Toy. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing with kindergarteners, high school students, or CEOs; there are usually a handful of players who are struggling to understand directions or assemble the toy, and they aren’t asking for help. We see them getting frustrated and confused, and sometimes even giving up. Meanwhile, the observers are sure that the blindfolded players could have solved the problem, if they only asked for help. So why don’t they?

Why don’t we ask for help?

Asking for help should be pretty simple, but for some reason it’s something that a lot of people struggle with, and it often comes from a place of fear.

“As with so many things that would serve us (and others), our fear is what gets in the way. Fear of overstepping a friendship. Fear of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing. Fear of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together after all.”

– Margie Warrell

Psychology Today points out that the roots of this fear can come from a negative experience asking for help, often early on in your life. Maybe you were shamed for asking for help in school, or saw someone face consequences for showing that they didn’t have all the answers. On the flip side, people that have the answers, or who are seen as “self-made” are celebrated. We see people rewarded for the things that they did on their own, not the times they needed help.

We also see a focus on the value of independence across different educational systems and parenting styles. Dr. Meredith Small remarks that there is a distinct focus on raising independent kids, whether from a lens of being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or the lens of embracing the things that make you unique. More schools are implementing independent learning structures as studies show that it can have a positive impact on students. The problem is that somewhere along the way, most of us made the mistake of connecting asking for help with a lack of independence. But as we’ve seen through a lot of games with the Empathy Toy, asking for help can sometimes be a critical element to success.

Succeed by asking for more help

You might think that asking for help makes you look weak or unintelligent at work, but former finance executive Jennifer Winter is less worried about providing help and more concerned about getting things done.

“While managers (myself included) appreciate dedication and diligence, we loathe inefficiency. If your boss sees you beating yourself up over something, she’s more likely to be thinking ‘Why didn’t you come to me sooner?’ rather than view you as an industrious and dedicated employee.”

– Jennifer Winter

In hyper-competitive work environments, the ability to complete tasks independently, quickly, and correctly can feel like a requirement to survive in your role. As Garret Keizer pointed out in the New York Times, “There is a tendency to act as if [asking for help is] a deficiency. That is exacerbated if a business environment is highly competitive within as well as without. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.” Winter says that the way you ask for help makes a big difference. Trying to solve the problem on your own and bringing possible solutions to the person helping you “not only shows that you’ve thought through the issue on your own first, but also that you’re not asking for a handout - you’re trying to get the job done together.”

Understanding the best way to ask for help, and when to ask for it is increasingly important as the value placed on networking and building connections continues to grow. Constantly asking for help and advice is not a great way to build truly collaborative professional relationships, but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid asking all together. Founder and CEO Janine Garner says that asking for help, and helping others, is key to successful entrepreneurship. “When we support other people to be more successful, we discover opportunities for collaboration that ultimately enable us to be more successful ourselves.” Our friends at SheEO talk about asking for help right in their credo, with statements like “If you need something, ask” and “We are here with our sleeves rolled up, ready to help one another”. There is an emphasis that this kind of asking for help is a two way street, and that both parties benefit from this collaboration. Amanda Palmer’s 2013 TED Talk shows that she was able to do more once she got more comfortable asking strangers for help as a street performer.

“Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you.”

– Amanda Palmer

Not all of us are street performers, but we all have hundreds of opportunities to practice asking for help every day. We can be part of shifting the culture in our communities and workplaces to highlight the benefits of asking for help. At work, you can add an item to your team meeting agenda so people have a clear platform to ask for help. In schools, recognize students who ask for help as well as those who offer it. At home, model asking for help as a strength and a way to learn to do new things so that you can do them independently next time. And next time you’re playing the Empathy Toy with us, don’t be afraid to ask for a little help. We promise, it’s part of successful game play.

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