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How to Ask for Help

Getting more information and resources is easier when you know how to ask for help. Asking for help can be as simple as getting help with understanding a concept or project, to more complex issues such as setting boundaries, which is a powerful way of standing up for yourself.

Students can get better grades, employees can improve work performance, and personal relationships can be enhanced with this simple skill.

This post and video include examples of asking for help and sample scripts so that you can try the format to solve your own challenges. For personalized help, contact CrossRoads to schedule a session.

Although this post really is about humans, I learned an interesting lesson from my cats. For 16 years, I had a cat who often hurt herself and didn’t seem to learn from her mistakes. When she passed away, I got a new cat who learned to open drawers and cabinets. She figured out how to use all the reflective surfaces to spy on me. I thought she was the smart one, but I realized my old cat could do one thing my new cat doesn’t do. She knew how to ask for help.

If my husband or I shut a door, our old cat would let us know right away if she was trapped inside. The new cat will sit and wait, sometimes for hours, until the door is opened, and she bursts out of the room like a rocket. Despite all of our new cat’s clever tricks, she can’t do it all by herself.

No matter how smart you are, you’re limited to your own abilities and resourcesUNTIL YOU ASK FOR HELP! So, why don’t we ask for help?

Common fears

Lists of fears are usually quite similar—low self-worth, fears of failure and rejection relate to vulnerability. These fears usually rank far higher than physical threats like spiders and snakes.

This list of fears is from Adam Smith’s book: “The Bravest You: 5 Steps to Fight Your Biggest Fears, Find Your Passion and Unlock Your Extraordinary Life” In an interview, he noted: “Feeling vulnerable, or available for attack from others, is the main reason people won’t open up in the first place.”

The top 10 fears include common fears (marked in bold) which prevent most people from showing the level of vulnerability necessary to reach out to ask for help.

  1. Inadequacy
  2. Uncertainty
  3. Failure
  4. Rejection
  5. Missing out
  6. Change
  7. Losing control
  8. Being judged
  9. Something bad happening
  10. Hurt feelings

To help you tackle your fears of asking for help, I’m focusing on 2 main sources of fear: Vulnerability and Not knowing what to say.


An excerpt from the poem “There is Something I Don’t Know” by Psychiatrist R. D. Laing, from his book “knots” sums up how the vulnerability of the fear of looking stupid causes people to exacerbate their problems.

I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
    and yet am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid
    if I seem both not to know it
        and not to know
        what it is I don’t know.

The fear of letting anyone know that they don’t know something stops them from communicating their needs.

But it is a fear of how we THINK we are perceived by others.

These deep-seated fears of inadequacy and low self-worth take time to resolve. But resolving any issue requires a first step. A change in perspective can be the first step to overcoming these fears.

Changing perception

The fact that you need help is actually a good thing. If you need help, that means you’ve pushed yourself to the limit. This is your chance to grow. You have an opportunity to accomplish more than you could have done alone. This is your chance to grow instead of stagnating.

Failure is a stage of success

And if you’re still worried about failure, you should know —there’s a reason so many quotes about failure include the word success. Failure is one stage of learning that can lead to success IF you don’t quit.

And getting help is one of the best ways to complete your task– instead of quitting. So if you decide to continue to grow, and GET HELP—you can reach new levels of success.

Big projects need teamwork

Large projects like SpaceX and the iPhone each usually bring to mind one person (Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, respectively), when it actually took a team of decision makers and a huge workforce to make either project happen. We love the myth of the rugged individualist, while forgetting it usually takes a team to do anything of significance.

We wouldn’t have the products we have today without somebody asking someone else for help.

Not Knowing How to Ask for Help

Coming back to the poem, it ends with “So you will have to tell me everything” because it’s common to overwhelm the other person after becoming stressed and then finally asking for help. The full poem is included here:

There is Something I Don’t Know

by Psychiatrist R. D. Laing (from his book Knots)

There is something I don’t know
    that I am supposed to know.
I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
    and yet am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid
    if I seem both not to know it
        and not to know
        what it is I don’t know.

Therefore, I pretend I know it.
    This is nerve-racking
    since I don’t know
    what I must pretend to know.

Therefore, I pretend to know everything.

I feel you know what I am supposed to know
    but you can’t tell me what it is
    because you don’t know that I don’t know
what it is.

You may know what I don’t know, but not
    that I don’t know it.

And I can’t tell you.
So you will have to
tell me everything.

There are a few main tips to asking for help that can work for most common needs. Having difficulty understanding something, needing help with a project, and a heavy workload are upcoming examples.

  • Be helpful to get help.
    • Volunteer organizations make it easy for people to help them by making it easy to help.
  • What you know is a starting point
    • Optional—flattery can make your starting point easier to remember.
  • Plan/break down steps/what needs to be done (do your homework!)
  • Pick ONE aspect you need help with.
    • You can ask for more help later if necessary. It’s easier to not panic and not try to do it all at once if you keep in mind that you can ask for more help later.
    • Don’t overload with details
    • You’re not asking them to do everything, just one thing for now.

Being helpful to get help

You might feel overwhelmed by what you need to do, but you don’t need to overwhelm the other person. You’re not asking them to do it all. If you “do your homework”, research and think about what needs to be done, you can make it easier for the other person to help you.

Some people are afraid of asking for help because they don’t want to be seen as “overly helpless” or needy. Taking responsibility and simplifying your request keeps you from being overly helpless.

How others successfully ask for help

It can help to look at the way others successfully ask for help. For example, Political grassroots organizations, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and other efforts exist because People love to help!

These organizations work because they know how to be helpful to get help. Volunteer organizations have clearly defined roles. This is their way of being helpful to get help. Consider how easy an organization makes the work of a volunteer by providing a script. If you’ve been visited by a door-to-door volunteer, or have spent time in such a position, you have likely noticed they have a script. This is one of the ways an organization can be helpful to get help—with clearly defined roles— and a script.

They don’t overwhelm volunteers and the volunteers don’t overwhelm the people they visit. The script also keeps the request simple.

Needing help to understand something

Student: “I don’t get it.”
Teacher: “Don’t get what?”
Student: “Any of it…?”
Teacher: “I can’t help you if you don’t help me to help you!”

In this example, an overwhelmed student can overwhelm a teacher. Not having a starting point sounds more like a complaint than a request for help.

This is why not taking the responsibility of having a starting point can overwhelm the other person. Using what you do know as a starting point is a way to get faster and more precise help without wasting anyone’s time.

The basic formula

Asking for help to understand something is possibly the simplest of requests and a great basic formula to ask for help. It can be done by stating two basic things?

  • What you do know
  • What you want to know.

Truth be told—I came up with these examples of asking for help based on chemistry questions because the stock photo I used for the video had what I believed to be carbon bonds on the chalkboard. I asked for help—I knew someone who was familiar enough with chemistry to let me know if my questions made any sense. But what truly matters is the formula of asking for help. I have marked the main elements of the formula in bold. Each state what the student knows (or believes they know to be true) and what they’re trying to understand as the second item in bold.

In these examples, the student has clearly done their homework, offering what they know as a starting point. This is being helpful to get help, not overwhelming the other person, and it shows responsibility.

  • I read chapter 5, and I understood the part about carbon bonds, but I’m having trouble identifying which polymer structures were naturally occurring.”
  • I know how to sort polymers into the two main categories based on repeating structural units, but I don’t know the difference between ‘mer units’ from monomers.”

An extra benefit of stating what you knowif you’re wrong about what you state that you do know, the other person will likely know the difference and they will correct you.

Adding flattery

As Dale Carnegie pointed out in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, asking someone for help is “a subtle but effective form of flattery” because you are showing the other person they know or have something you need.

Adding a compliment is optional, but helpful. The flattery is genuine–you’re asking the other person for help because you value their expertise. Showing that appreciation can also make it easier to remember your starting point.

In this first example, the request would be quite time consuming for the person being asked for help.

“I want to build a responsive website from scratch. Can you show me how?”

An example of asking without overwhelming—and showing one has done their homework shows flattery, responsibility, and provides options for help.

I really like the features you added to your responsive website. I know some HTML and CSS basics, and I’d like to build a responsive website like yours–from scratch. Could you tell me what other programming languages I should know or what reference guides are useful?”

Getting help with a project

Fear of “looking stupid” could keep you from getting the help you need. This can lead to a preventable problem or poor performance. A negative performance review could lead to loss of future opportunities or loss of one’s job.

Similar to the previous example of understanding something, this can be as simple as stating:

  • What you have
  • What you need

Instead of this:

“I have to do a report for next quarter’s projections for our department’s budget. I don’t think I can get it done on time!”

It’s better to make a more specific request that shows you’ve “done your homework”.

“I’m working on a report for next quarter’s budget for our department. I believe I have everything but the travel expenses. If you could help with that, I would appreciate it.”

If you don’t know where to start, it’s also a good idea to let someone know you need examples of successful projects. Try to find out who did the last successful project.

Going to a co-worker and saying you’re working on the budget can put them in a spot—they’re thinking about all the other things that need to get done. They would then have to go through the list with you of what expenses you do and don’t know. Letting them know what you do have as well as what you know you need keeps them from having to do your work.

Remember, even if you’re desperate, try to avoid putting someone on the spot. If they’re not reporting to you, it is especially important to give them the option of saying NO.

You can also ask them for more info or to check over your figures after the first favor.

Unreasonable workload

Dealing with what you perceive to be an unreasonable workload can be somewhat more complicated. Employment is precarious when the economy takes a downturn, but it’s important to stand up for yourself. NOTE: Some positions, companies, and industries can have demands you did not anticipate.

When you feel you have an unreasonable workload, help comes from not being stuck with more than you can handle.

If you’re new, experienced co-workers can let you know if the amount of work you have been assigned is normal and fair. You can also consider asking for tips to help you improve your efficiency. It’s possible that you’re feeling overloaded because your efficiency isn’t up to par.

“I just got 5 new accounts without a deadline adjustment and I wanted to know if that’s normal.”

“Do you have any tips for processing these requests more quickly?”

If you’re not new, and your workload is increasing beyond what is normal, you can find out if you’re not the only one experiencing this problem. (Again, it’s important to make sure you are handling your workload with expediency.)

“Are you experiencing an abnormal increase in workload? I just got 5 new accounts to process by tomorrow.”

Business needs can change. It’s possible everyone else is coping with an increased workload. Once you find out your workload really is unfair, it’s a good idea to address this with your boss.

Employee engagement

Effective managers know how important Employee engagement is.

  • Saves recruitment and training time/costs
  • Improves morale
  • Lower turnover/higher productivity
  • Mark of good management
  • Prevents the loss of good employees

An unfair work environment can lead to the loss of a good employee. But the employee doesn’t always leave right away. Before finally leaving, they could create problems that could ruin morale even after they have left. If you talk to your boss about it, you’re doing them a favor—you’re making them aware of an issue before it leads to the loss of employee engagement.

  • Before leaving, a good employee could become a “bad” employee:
    • Disengage (loss of employee engagement)
    • Lower team morale
    • Reduce productivity
    • Increase errors 

Addressing the issue

By this point, if you’ve verified that your workload is unfair, you might still be afraid to say something.

  • Turning down the assignment: Could be considered insubordinate or lazy.
  • Taking on too much work: Poor performance could reflect negatively on performance review.
  • Setting boundaries: asking for help with an unreasonable workload

If you have more than one boss, or an overwhelmed boss, despite the best efforts of management software and other tools, they might still have a blind spot.

  • They might not know how much work  you’ve been assigned
  • Outline the demands on your time and attention—they might not know you’ve been overloaded.
  • Should be made aware so that they can decide to adjust expectations, priorities, or deadlines or provide assistance.  

If you’re afraid you’ll be considered insubordinate or lazy, consider this pointyou’re not actually saying no. You’re making your boss aware of an issue they need to know. When your boss knows that you have been given more than you can complete before a deadline, this helps them make the best use of resources instead of overloading a member of their team.

Win-win scenario

A difficult situation doesn’t have to be a no-win scenario. This isn’t the Kobayashi Maru. (An “unwinnable scenario” for all you non-Trekkers). Examples:

Too many assignments/deadline:

This first example with too many assignments shows that you’re not unwilling to do the assignment, but if you add it to your existing workload, it could cause a delay. This could help with managing expectations.

 “I’d like to be able to complete this for you as well as I possibly can. I have two other projects due next week, and adding this additional assignment could cause a delay.”

This example lets your boss know that you would need another person to help.

 “I might not be able to complete this on time with my existing workload. Is there someone else available to help?

Too many bosses:

In this example with too many bosses, you’re reminding your boss of the work and deadlines others have assigned to you.

“I’m working on a project for Susan and I’m still finishing the proposal for the Peterson account for Tim. Both of them have strict deadlines. To complete this new project in the next two days, I believe I will need some help or an adjustment in one of the other deadlines.

Additional situations

There are many other situations in which you might need to ask for help.

Professional life (expand opportunities):

  • Networking
  • Research Interview/Informational Interview

Personal life:

  • Advice/second opinion
  • Boundaries (Our 3-part series on boundaries includes examples to help you define, set, and enforce boundaries for better relationships in your personal and professional life. )
  • Scheduling and Prioritizing
  • Getting help with housework/responsibilities. Example: Taking classes—less disposable time, need more help at home.

In this last example, it’s easier to ask for help earlier than waiting until you’ve already stressed and angry. It includes a specific request as well as reasons the request is being made.

“I’m taking a new course for the next 6 months. Since I’m also working, I don’t have enough time to work, attend classes, study, and finish homework as well as handle all the housework. I will need more help around the house. I will need you to wash dishes four times per week.”

The Benjamin Franklin Effect

Here’s one last benefit and example of asking for help–In addition to gaining more information and resources, you can establish and improve relationships with “The Benjamin Franklin Effect”.

Benjamin Franklin wanted to improve his relationship with another member of legislature. He knew the man had a collection of rare books, and asked him if he could borrow a specific book from his collection. The other man sent the book immediately, and after a few days, Franklin returned it with a note expressing his gratitude. The other man’s behavior toward him instantly changed. He showed a readiness to help, and they remained friends for the rest of his life.

Franklin’s request was simple, specific, AND it gave the other man an opportunity to impress.  Franklin explained the effect with this quote, meaning that someone who has done you a favor will be more ready to help again than someone you helped.

“He that has once done you a kindness
will be more ready to do you another,
than he whom you yourself have obliged.“

                                                —Benjamin Franklin

You’d think doing someone a favor would be the way to get someone to like you, not the other way around. Some psychologists believe this happens because of the mind’s way of resolving cognitive dissonance. According to this theory, when someone does you a favor, even if they don’t like you, the action of helping you makes them convince themselves that they MUST like you. After all, why else would they be helping you?

Don’t forget—people like to help, so make it easy for them to help you!

For more personalized help to get more out of your personal and professional life, contact us at 317-842-8881 to schedule an appointment.