How to Ask for Help

Contributed on August 30, 2021 by Cheryl Viola, Executive Director, MBA

We can all relate, you’re doing your work, and you need help but you are worried about bothering a co-worker. One of the things I am very good at is asking questions. When I have had to ask the same question more than once I would often say something like: “I know I have already asked, please tell me again….” There is no shame in seeking clarification and asking again. The one reason we struggle to ask for help is that we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable to others’ judgments or to look incompetent.

Recently I read a blog post from one of my favorite leadership authors, Angie Morgan. She shared an experience that while at a hotel for a leadership training session an employee asked if she needed help with her boxes of materials. She politely declined; a small misstep landed her sprawled on the floor.  I could relate to this story, I had an embarrassing situation when I declined help, made a misstep, and was face down on the road. Talk about embarrassing.

We live in a society that promotes independence. We think to ourselves “I’ve got this”. We don’t ask for help because we fear being turned down, laughed at, or rejected.  Learning to ask for (and accept) help is one of the greatest skills you can develop.

Most of the time we are comfortable asking for help with something we don’t know, such as when we start a new job or want to learn something new. When it comes to asking for help in an area that we feel confident in, we often refuse help and miss the opportunity to learn more.

When is the right time to ask for help? Here are three concentric circles to help. The innermost circle represents what you currently know. The middle circle represents what you don’t know but you can figure out yourself. People are busy and you first need to spend a little time trying to find the answer. That might mean you need to go back through previous emails, do a google search, etc. If you can find the answer quickly on your own, then do not interrupt someone else from their work. The outermost circle represents what you don’t know and can’t learn for yourself. These are the good questions to ask help for.

How would your performance, development, and career progression improve if you started to seek counsel in the areas where you feel 98% confident and competent? What could you learn and how could you grow in that extra 2%?

Keep your ego at bay when answering these questions.

  • What are the talents and skills I am most proud of?
  • What more can I explore regarding my strengths?
  • What am I pretty sure I do not know?
  • How can I spend more time growing in areas I already feel confident in?

There is always something new we can learn. The best learning occurs when you are curious and want to improve.  With the way things change daily, it is vital for any job to strive to learn more. Most people are happy to lend a hand and share their knowledge and expertise.

When to Seek Help

1.            When you have no idea what you are doing

Say things like: I am a little confused about the details of the ABC project, could we set a time to sit down and talk through the nuts and bolts of the assignment to make sure we are on the same page?

2.            When you have too much on your plate.

This is when you have said yes too many times, stayed late many nights, and have reached your limit. Reach out for assistance from your other co-workers.

Try this: I am totally swamped right now, if you have some extra time, would you mind helping with XYZ of this project? I know this is your area of expertise, I would really appreciate your help and insight.

3.            When you made a mistake

Do not take it to heart. You are human and mistakes happen. The worst thing you can do is to try to sweep it under the rug. You are not the first or the last to make a mistake.

Try this: “I am so embarrassed, but I messed up on XYZ, now I need ABC done to fix it and I would really appreciate your help.”

4.            When you need additional Expertise or Insight

Never hesitate to ask for additional input, utilizing the talents of co-workers.

Try this: “I’m working on XYZ and I would love your expert insight on this particular area. Can we set up a time when we can chat and bounce some ideas off each other?”

No one achieves great things without countless people behind them offering skills, insights, and expertise. We depend on others to learn and grow. Become comfortable asking for help and receiving help. Everyone benefits when we help one another.