Whenever I feel the need for some mental or emotional support, I know who I can count on. Among my family, friends and colleagues, there are few who would not willingly and generously extend a helping hand. And when I thank them, they respond graciously, saying they believe it is the right thing to do. They also say that there is a reciprocal benefit, as in it makes them feel good too. The funny thing is, though, when I enquire whether those same people ever seek help themselves, the response is mixed.
Recognising the need to ask for help does not come naturally to everyone. Perhaps there is a perception that it involves social risks, such as loss of status and control, or there is a reluctance to appear weak or vulnerable in front of one’s peers for fear of rejection or derision. Such fears may be ill-founded, but studies in neuroscience show that fear as an emotion activates the same part of the brain as physical pain and is, therefore, strongly motivating.
There is also the issue of comprehension that can inhibit our behaviour. I remember that, as a child and young adult suffering the agonies of growing up, I could not understand why others did not, apparently, understand what I was going through. Perhaps some of them did – after all it is a common phenomenon – but it was not obvious to me because I was not articulating my needs. Social psychologists call this ‘the illusion of transparency’ – the mistaken belief that our feelings, thoughts and needs are obvious to others. In my case, I was disappointed that those around me lacked the telepathic power to offer me the help I needed but had not asked them for.
I now understand that, in order to get help, one often has to ask for it, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel. But once you accept the principle, it becomes easier, more comfortable. And there is a bonus: people are likely to be more helpful than we might expect. After all, nobody is perfect, and we all need help sometimes.
Here are four tips on how to ask effectively for the help you need:
- Be concise and clear. Think about the kind of help you need and write it down to clarify your thoughts. People are more likely to offer effective assistance when they understand the problem.
- Consider who and when. Identify the person best placed to help you. Is it within their skill set? Consider your timing also: it is best to act before you reach crisis point, and it helps to choose an appropriate time to raise the issue.
- Watch your language. Take care not to be apologetic and cast yourself as having done something wrong or else you risk alienating your helper. Take care, also, not to minimise the importance of your dilemma by saying things like, “It’s just a small thing…”
- Be accepting and grateful. Even if the help you are offered is not quite what you had hoped for, accept it with gratitude and go on to build on what you have been given. Never forget to say thank you.
Despite the fact that we live in times when self-help and self-reliance are promoted as virtues, it remains a fundamental fact that no human can go it alone. Learning to ask for and accept help given is a great skill that we can all develop. Let’s get asking – and let’s get giving, too!