How to ask for help

Skip the Small Talk How to Ask for Help

Asking for help is vulnerable; when we solicit support of any kind, we open ourselves up to the possibility of rejection and all the accompanying feelings and self-judgments. So, it’s understandable that many of us feel anxious about it or have a hard time asking others for much beyond passing the mashed potatoes at dinner-- and even that can raise anxiety.

Of course, that anxiety dies down the more you push yourself to ask others for help (look up “cognitive behavioral therapy” if you don’t believe it). But when you don’t have much experience asking others for support, it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to start. That’s why we’ve developed a three-part template that may help make asking for assistance go a little more smoothly, and may increase your chances of getting a response you’ll feel good about.

  1. Be specific with your ask. Anxiety can sometimes lead us to make our asks as short as possible so we can get them over with quickly. However, if you don’t include specifics in your ask, the person you’re asking may not know what they’re agreeing to, which could lead to miscommunications. For example, don’t just say, “Would you be up for helping me with my move?” The person you’re asking might imagine carrying heavy furniture up and down stairs, while you might actually just want them to pack boxes with you. If you phrased it more vaguely, they might end up saying “no,” when more details would have gotten them to a “yes.” Instead, try something like, “Would you be up for helping me pack boxes for my move some time this weekend? I’m hoping it’ll take about five hours, and we could do it Saturday 12 PM onward or Sunday 10 AM or later-- whatever works best for you.”

  2. Tell them why you are asking THEM. Clarify what it is about them that made you ask them instead of anyone else in the world. For instance: “I thought to ask for your help with packing boxes because you’re great at organizing and because I feel comfortable enough with you to ask for help, which I usually hate doing.” This accomplishes several things: Not only does it make people feel special, but it also allows you to share your thoughts or feelings about them, which can make you both feel closer. Specifying why you’re asking them also offers them a useful perspective about whether this is a purely logistical favor or whether this is meaningful for you, and to what extent. For example, there’s a big difference between, “I’m asking you because you’d mentioned you’re free on Saturday,” and, “I’m asking you because this move feels stressful for me, and it’d mean a lot for me to have you there.” Mentioning why you’ve chosen to ask this particular person for help makes any subtext to your ask clearer, and can even help you and your ask-ee feel closer in the process.

  3. If it feels like a big or sensitive ask, make it as easy as possible for them to say “no.” Trust us: In most situations, you don’t want someone saying “yes” to you purely out of guilt. They’ll be much likelier to bail on you, or to be resentful of you longer term. And even if you’d be content with a “guilt-yes,” people tend to be more comfortable saying “yes” to things when they feel like you respect their freedom to say “no.” So, try adding something like, “Let me know either way, and no problem if it doesn’t work out,” or, “Either way is fine-- keep me posted,” to help people feel more comfortable responding to you.

So, putting all this together, you might end up with: “Hey, I was wondering if you’d be up for a 10-15 minute phone call some time tonight so I can vent about something stressful that happened this morning. I thought to ask you because you’re always a great listener. No worries if you’re too swamped with work, though!” Another example: “Would you be able to answer some website design questions any time 9 AM - 5 PM today through Friday via phone or in person? I saw your latest website and I thought it looked fantastic, so I’d value your opinions. If that’s something you’d be available for, please let me know what time works best for you.”

This template is malleable if it doesn’t quite fit your particular situation, but it can serve as a starting point for crafting a request for any sort of help. While using this template hopefully reduces the stress of asking for assistance, the best way to make almost anything feel easier is to do it over and over again. Remember, you don’t need to wait until you urgently and desperately need help before you ask for it-- we recommend practicing asking for help before you need something big and important, if you can manage it. So, happy practicing!