How to ask for help

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Like so many essential life skills, asking for help is something I remember learning very early in my childhood, but then forgetting as I became an adult. Tying shoes, doing homework, baking cookies - help with these tasks seemed to flow naturally, perhaps because it was about learning and skill acquisition, the domain of teachers and parents. But help can also take the form of acts that we’ll never be able to do for ourselves, like reaching the top shelf. Sure, I could drag over a chair and climb up, but my tall husband is usually happy to help retrieve a teapot or vase more quickly. Friends or partners helping each other in this way feels reciprocal and satisfying, at least when relationships are healthy. It actually strengthens our social bond.

But then there’s the kind of help that we don’t know we need, or that we’ve mistakenly learned that we shouldn’t need or are not allowed to have. This third type of help is what I’ve become interested in lately as part of my exploration of leading and following in professional spaces. Help with understanding, decision-making, or diplomacy. Help seeing the big picture or grasping the details. Help in the form of resources or expertise. If helping, or supporting, is a following action, as I believe it is, then is asking for that help a leading action?

Since I think of leading as an energy that prompts or solicits action from others, I think the answer is yes, but I admit that when I first considered the idea, it felt awkward in my mind. I don’t think I’m alone in holding a sneaky false belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness, but naming it as a leadership skill made my bias even more obvious.

Even though I have invested many years in the practice of both roles as complementary, I still feel the old stereotype of the all-powerful leader nag at my psyche from time to time. My unchallenged assumption, as I uncovered it, went something like this: “If leaders are powerful, they don’t ask for help, because only weaklings need help.” Ick.

And that was the moment I remembered the wise counsel of Brené Brown. What if asking for help is a sign of courage? As Brown proves over and over again in her groundbreaking research, vulnerability is the hallmark of courage. Asking for help makes us feel vulnerable, and although we’re tempted to associate that feeling with weakness, we are far better served by associating it with courage.

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The thing is, mutual help or support is one of the most effective ways to ensure health, happiness, and success. I believe we are designed by nature as interdependent creatures, built to sustain ourselves through an ongoing exchange of helpfulness. When the structure of our lives reflects this inherent connectedness, well-being increases.

Below are three suggestions for getting more comfortable with asking for help:

1. Normalize Interdependence

The myth of absolute individualism has convinced many of us that help is for babies or for the physically or intellectually incapacitated, or something you get only in life-threatening emergencies. Instead, what if it were normal to lend one another a hand? What if this exchange, whether taking the form of labor, money, expertise, physical affection, or simply attentive presence, was a free-flowing tide that lifted all boats, a continuous, multi-directional stream of pay-it-forward. Asking for help might then become less personal and more general. The sweet potatoes are passed down the table, and the salad is passed back in the opposite direction. Everyone eats.

This understanding is a big part of what allowed me to overcome perfectionism and start asking for help. And when I did, I started to see that believing that we should be able to succeed on our own is often the very thing that holds us back, both in our creative and professional ambitions and in our relationships. It’s normal to need each other, and it's normal to help each other.

2. Build Your Community

Even if you know what to ask, you may not know who to ask. The way many of us live and work can be shockingly isolating. Even surrounded by thousands of others in a city, it’s not uncommon to feel lonely. The remedy is to deliberately broaden your social network, not online, but in person (I've recently been experimenting with Bumble's BFF mode). It’s a lot easier to ask for help if you have a variety of people to choose from.

I learned how powerful a community can be while serving as executive director of an arts nonprofit in Washington, DC, many years ago. With the ambitious goal of building a performing company, social dance school, and tango orchestra, I quickly realized that I needed help. Fortunately, I happened to know lots of people. I started asking for tangible resources like equipment, housing, and rehearsal space, and for professional skills like accounting, writing, and photography. I also asked for labor, advice, and money. In retrospect, I almost feel embarrassed by how much I asked for, and deeply humbled by how much was given. The coordination of many, many gifts produced dozens of professional dance and live music performances and enabled the education of hundreds of social dancers.

3. Be Ok with No

If you’re going to ask, you have you be able to accept a "no" answer. For me, this was the hardest part for a long time. Imagining "no" as a personal rejection, I only asked people for help when I was fairly certain they would say yes. Although perhaps a good rule of thumb in general, this approach quickly became a way for me to avoid the things I needed help with the most, like marketing, and also prevented me from deepening my friendships and professional collaborations in the way that only the alchemy of giving and receiving can.

In order to be truly ok with a "no," I think you have to de-personalize it. You’re asking for something, but the answer is not an affirmation or a dismissal of your right to ask or a hint that you do or don’t deserve help in the first place, which is how many of us are tempted to interpret it. Rather, the no response is simply a reflection of a person’s capacity, choice, and  needs. The vast majority of people want to help if they can. A "no" is usually much more a reflection of one's individual situation and priorities, not an opinion about you in particular. Once I stopped fearing rejection or loss based on my requests for support, it became much easier to ask.

Where do you need help in your life right now? What will allow you to ask? A coaching relationship is among the most profound and practical forms of support I have personally experienced. To find out how empowerment techniques might benefit you, request a free consultation today.