What is it about asking for help that’s so hard?
Perhaps in the USA, it’s the tradition of Emerson’s “self-reliance” that makes it difficult. Many think that it’s a sin to rely on someone else to get a task done. In Emerson’s world, looking to others for help can erode independence.
Or maybe we are just afraid of rejection. “What if they say no?”
Whatever the case, it’s something that can cause problems for an organization that relies on collaboration and trust.
I could spend a month talking about vulnerability and its role in communication and relationship building.
It’s a confusing topic, and yet it’s often cited as the key to better leadership.
What do we mean when we talk about vulnerability?
First and foremost, it isn’t weakness.
When the topic of vulnerability comes up with clients, I point out that there’s a difference between “baby bird” vulnerability and the kind of vulnerability that leaders need. Baby birds are helpless. Leaders are not. When we present ourselves as helpless, we make it harder for people to want to help.
The key is in the willingness to open up your struggles to others, without asking to be saved.
The better you are at sharing your feelings without being defensive (or manipulative), the more trustworthy and confident you will appear.
What is help?
Here are some questions that I ask myself before I reach out to someone for help.
Experiment with them yourself to see if they are, uh, helpful. (Sorry, it couldn’t be avoided.)
1. Am I asking for a trade, or am I asking for help? It’s tempting to turn a request for help into a transaction. “I’ll do this for you if you do that for me.” It’s fine in a general sense, but often it can lead to manipulation and resentment. The trade will rarely feel balanced unless we are both bringing a similar need.
2. Am I willing to hear no? This is probably the hardest one to be honest about. I don’t always know the answer until I hear it, but I find that, if I take the time to think about it beforehand, I have a chance to be clear about my expectations.
3. Am I willing to be vulnerable? As I mentioned above, there’s a difference between the vulnerability of a “baby bird” who needs to be saved, versus being open and honest about an ask. Firstly, can I admit that I don’t know how to do something without being a victim? Secondly, can I ask for help without needing to be rescued? Thirdly, am I willing to ask without pushing you into a corner? If I can, then the ask becomes clearer and more compelling.
Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a great formula for asking for help. I believe it holds the key to being vulnerable and staying grounded. He writes about it in his excellent book on The Art of Communicating.
The formula is: “I’m suffering, please help.”
It’s so simple, and yet it’s radically different from what we typically do when we ask for help.
What if we were open about the struggle and more vulnerable about the ask?
Typically, people make an excuse
“I have to borrow your truck tomorrow for my move because Uhaul doesn’t have any to rent.”
Or we make it a transaction.
“Will you do me a favor and walk my dog for me?”
We even sometimes make it a threat.
“You have to help me on this because I’ve helped you so many times in the past month.”
It’s not that these methods don’t ever work. It’s just that they are inherently controlling or manipulative. They create a zero-sum relationship with the other person. Think of how every time you feel manipulated or controlled by a request, you trust that person less.
When we get honest with ourselves and real with others, we have a chance to communicate with openness and vulnerability. The better we get at this, the more influence we can have on those around us.
Asking for help is not about “getting” something, so much as it’s an opportunity to lean on each other and feel connected.
It’s how we’ve managed to get big things done in this world, and it’s often a sign of strength, rather than weakness.
When you’re willing to get real and honest with your suffering (whatever that might be for you), you are able to get clearer about what kind of help you need.
How awesome is it when someone has the courage to say to you, “I am struggling to solve this problem, will you help me figure it out?”
Isn’t that better than saying, “I can’t solve this problem, will you do it?”
The first is using Thich Nhat Hanh’s formula for vulnerability, and the second is all about using helplessness as a form of control.
What ways could you be more intentional in how you ask for help?
How could you be more vulnerable, without being helpless?
Could you see this ask as an invitation to connect and feel connected, rather than an ends to a means?
I’ve recently written a book. It’s taken me about four years, and I’m both proud of the work and exhausted by the process.
I’m excited to see if it can find its way to a publisher, but I could use some help.
The agents and publishers want to see that I have a lot of followers in this email. I’m struggling with how to do this, but a friend suggested that I ask for help. I’ve been sitting on this suggestion for about a month, and I finally decided to ask.
Would you be willing to share this email with five of your contacts and ask them to subscribe?
It’s hard to ask for help. But if we don’t ask, I guess we never give people a chance to show that they care. Thanks for all of your help.
Voice Workshop for Women:
I’ve heard from a bunch of people about the workshop in March, and I will have more details soon. If you’re interested in getting on a list for a women’s workshop about claiming your voice, please let me know. It will be taught by Patricia Mulholland, an accomplished music therapist and coach. If you can’t do this round, don’t worry. We will do this again at other times in the year.
Great insights, as always. I appreciate seeing the context around your topics.
Seth, This is my first visit to your blog and I found it very helpful and inspiring. I found your blog because my wife asked me to check it out and I’m glad she did and that I did. I struggle a lot with articulating my vulnerability, perhaps I have too much Emerson in me. I very much appreciate the framing that you’ve shared – I’m suffering, please help. As a high school teacher in these Covid times, it’s very difficult to share/reveal the ways in which I’m struggling. I consistently underestimate the value in just saying it, sharing it, because even if it doesn’t “solve” the problem, and even if it doesn’t get me much “help” from others, it does help me recognize that it is ok. My own expectations are often my worst enemy. In any event, thanks for your post and providing the venue to share my experience.