you can’t do it all alone: learn when and how to ask for help

it’s easy for people to trap themselves into shouldering every responsibility that comes their way.

some workplaces encourage this way of thinking, and countless bosses and superiors make their living inspiring people to face their struggles with equal parts ambition and stoic determination.

independent-minded people have a tendency to take responsibility for everything life throws their way. the old adage, “if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself” is a powerful and useful piece of advice for many aspects of peoples’ personal and professional worlds.

however, there will always come a time when you can’t do it yourself. someday, sometime, you will be forced to choose between two perfectly viable paths, each of which excludes the other and forces you to delegate something important to someone else.

the most successful leaders in history have always been those who knew how to predict when these situations would occur, and who were unashamed to ask for help when they did.

it turns out that asking for help is a critical skill that can not only improve the outcomes of important life decisions, but also foster deeper relationships with others. learning how to ask for help might be one of the most important things you can do, not just from a business standpoint, but as a human being.

why asking for help is so important

it is tempting to believe that you can do everything by yourself. many people tell themselves things like, “if i only had more money/power/connections, i could truly achieve my goals”.

this way of thinking doesn’t quite pan out in the long-run. that’s because there are new goals waiting just beyond whatever today’s goals are. there’s always a second mountain to climb, and choosing to do it alone forces you to spend more time and energy than necessary.

conserving time and energy is important because you only have so much of it. as mortal, fallible human beings, we are forced to choose our own path through life, even if we don’t necessarily want to – something Sartre called “radical freedom”.

but there is no need to make those choices alone, and no need to pursue your ultimate goals alone. asking for help does more than allow you to get things done efficiently, it lays the foundation for meaningful relationships with the people who will motivate you to do those things in the first place.

to see how this works, look no further than the Benjamin Franklin effect. the famous american statesman and inventor found that when he asked other people for favors, they became more friendly and receptive towards him – not the other way around. this paradoxical effect has been repeatedly demonstrated in sociological studies well after Franklin’s time, as well.

knowing when, how, and who to ask for help is a critical life skill that many people ignore to their own detriment. it is also one of the fundamental building blocks of business success that far too many thought leaders ignore.

turn friends and enemies into teachers, advisors, and consultants

western culture – especially liberal capitalist democratic culture – places an extreme importance on individual liberty and independence. most people see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.

the truth is that it is the complete opposite.

asking for help from people does not push you down. it only lifts them up. your friends, co-workers, and even rivals all have unique experiences and perspectives that you can use to achieve your goals.

this is true whether you ask for help performing a task or simply ask for guidance on a delicate subject. letting people know that you value their expertise is a powerful way to win their respect.

not only that, but it gives you the chance to reap the benefits of superior experience, knowledge, labor, and skill. all of those factors will contribute to your success if you can use them to glean insight from others’ actions. learning from others prevents you from having to make costly mistakes yourself.

to gain this kind of insight from others, you have to be willing to participate as fully in their lives as you expect them to participate in yours. this mutual sense of responsibility is key to what makes asking for help such a powerful skill. 

not only do you achieve your goals with greater speed and efficiency, but you also play your part empowering others to achieve theirs. when these goals are aligned with one another, the effect is cumulative.

but there are two sides to every coin. effectively asking for help also means preparing to show that you have done your work. otherwise, you risk being manipulative – which is a strategy that won’t pay off in the long run.

the first rule of asking for help: do your part first

if asking for help makes you feel like a manipulative freeloader, that’s probably because you have encountered exactly those types of people in the past and you wish to avoid becoming one yourself.

that’s perfectly understandable, but there are distinctions that must be made, first.

there is nothing manipulative about asking for help. once you start deceiving or intimidating people in order to receive help, you start walking down the path towards machiavellianism.

similarly, asking someone to perform a task for you does not make you a freeloader on its own. this only happens if you ask that person for help without expecting to do your part first.

one of the most important parts of successfully soliciting help from others is identifying what “your part” is. it can change depending on the situation. for instance, it might mean:

  • trying to solve the problem on your own first.
  • learning exactly what skills the problem demands.
  • making your request as specific as possible.
  • challenging your own assumptions beforehand.
  • carrying generosity forward.

let’s unpack what each of these steps really mean and how you can use them to maximize the effectiveness and outcome of soliciting help from others.

1. you have to help yourself first

if you find yourself faced with a difficult task and you immediately delegate it to someone else, that person may rightly feel like they are being taken advantage of. this is especially true if they believe the task is something that you could have done on your own.

there are lots of reasons why at least giving a crack at the problem yourself is valuable. it helps you identify exactly what parts of the problem go beyond your current skills or capabilities and it helps you break the problem down when you explain it to the person you wish to ask for help on it.

trying to solve the problem on your own gives you the ability to express the reason why you need help in the first place. this is vital, because it establishes exactly what you value most about the person you are soliciting help from.

2. you have to know exactly what you want

some problems are intrinsically challenging, like climbing a mountain. others are challenging in a more indirect way, like choosing which mountain to climb. it is your responsibility as a solicitor to understand what kind of help you wish to receive and to set clear goals for what you hope to accomplish by asking for it.

the more you know about the type of problem you have, the better equipped you will be to choose the right person to help you solve it. part of “doing your part” is identifying the areas where your knowledge, experience, or skill set falls short of the demands you’ve placed on yourself.

In Plato Not Prozac!, philosophical counselor Dr. Lou Marinoff shares real case studies from clients of his who had come to his clinic after unsuccessfully trying traditional psychiatric and psychological methods. many of these attempts were unsuccessful because the people in question did not have psychiatric or psychological problems in the first place – they had philosophical problems.

Dr. Marinoff’s clients didn’t have these unsuccessful experiences because psychiatric counseling is somehow wrong. it just didn’t provide the results they were looking for. their problems were not caused by disorders in their brain chemistry, so giving them drugs did nothing to address the problems they actually had.

in these cases, identifying what the problem really is makes a huge difference towards finding the right person to help with it. it also empowers you to ask the right person for the right kind of help.

3. you have to make your request clearly

sometimes people make requests that are worded in such a way it’s almost impossible to tell what actually needs doing. clear communication is a powerful skill and the few who have mastered it have a great advantage when it comes to gaining useful help from others.

vague, open-ended requests for help are difficult to oblige. even a patient, highly skilled person can fail to deliver results if you don’t communicate what kind of results you actually expect.

well-formulated requests are like military missions – they have clear objectives. whether you are asking someone to perform a task for you, teach you a new skill, or give you practical advice, there must be an unambiguous endpoint in sight.

otherwise, your request for help might sound like a request for unlimited servitude. even the most generous people will want to know exactly how much work they have to put in for you before they start.

when you take the time to tackle a problem on your own before delegating it to someone else, you gain enough insight into it to clearly define where your capabilities drop off. soliciting help from another person implicitly establishes them as an authority in that area – and everyone likes to feel like an authority.

4. challenge your own assumptions

one of the major mistakes that people make when asking others for help is assuming too much. it appears that we are socially conditioned to routinely underestimate the willingness of others to help us. whether this is a hardwired aspect of human nature or a cultural influence remains to be seen.

there are many ways your assumptions can get the better of you. this is especially true with problems that have a social dimension – where who you know can matter as much as what you know.

far too often, people neglect to ask for help from others because they assume that they don’t know anyone who can help. in reality, there is no way to arrive at certainty about what other people know until you ask.

it’s easy to write-off your immediate social circle, work colleagues, or family members. telling yourself, “oh, well, they’ve never been in a situation like this one, so even if they were willing to help, they couldn’t,” allows you to stay in your comfort zone and avoid showing vulnerability. but it might force you to go the long way around achieving your goals.

even if your circle of friends, family members, and co-workers can’t help directly, they might know someone who can. this is what David Brooks, author of The Second Mountain calls “communalism”, the mindset that generates rich, thick relationships between people and fosters a purposeful sense of community over individuality and tribalism.

5. don’t let the buck stop with you

asking for help means being prepared to help others when the time comes. you can’t stay on the receiving end forever. the only way to establish legitimately helpful relationships with people and earning their respect at the same time is by being as kind and generous as you expect them to be.

this is one of the most important parts of the helpfulness equation. if you consistently ask others for help addressing your problems, there will come a time when they need you, too. failing to make yourself available will lead to them branding you a selfish, manipulative person.

this doesn’t mean that you have to automatically oblige any request that someone makes of you, just because they helped you in the past. sometimes it simply isn’t feasible, practical, or possible to do what you’ve been asked. but you can carry generosity forward in other ways, perhaps by finding the right person for the requested task and asking them.

this kind of situation is an opportunity to practice the virtue of generosity. cultivating this virtue does more than help you feel good about yourself. it embeds you and those around you in a culture of generosity. this kind of action can have a compounding effect, helping everyone achieve their goals while minimizing their pains and worries. in the long run, it pays off for everyone.

how to ask for help the right way

once you’ve done your part and prepared to make good on the obligations that asking for help entails, you’re ready to make the request. it should come as no surprise that there is a right way and a wrong way to ask people for help.

optimizing the tone, timing, and context of your request is the best way to ensure that the person you ask responds with respect. the more attention you pay to your request, the better the outcome is likely to be.

  1. establish motivation by emphasizing authority

during the act of helping others, people fall into one of two broad mentalities concerning their motivation:

  • the servant mentality is easy to recognize. this occurs when someone feels like they are carrying out a request for a higher power. that power can be coercive, structural, or social – the important thing is that it minimizes that person’s feeling of authority and importance, leading to resentment. 
  • the master mentality emphasizes a person’s expertise, wisdom, and conscientiousness. this happens when the person carrying out a request feels like they have been asked to perform a task because they are uniquely competent.

whenever you phrase a request for someone to do something for you, it’s important to make that person feel like a master. defer to their authority and let them know that you chose them to carry out this task because they are uniquely suited to carry it out – not just because its convenient for you. 

2. pay attention to timing

timing is key to successfully asking others for help. depending on the type of request (and the amount of effort it will take to address), choosing the wrong time can lead lead to improper execution or outright refusal.

the problem here is that it is not always easy to tell when the “right time” is – especially for sensitive requests. sometimes, there simply is no “right” time, and you are forced to choose the least insensitive time possible and hope for the best.

but whenever you find yourself facing this kind of situation, the best option is always to ask first. you don’t have to launch directly into a request for help from someone the next time you see them. you can choose to say something like, “i’d like to ask your help with something important. when do you have time to talk about it?”

3. use the “yes ladder” to your advantage

sales professionals often use a psychological trick called the “yes ladder” to help boost their performance. this trick relies on a phenomenon called the priming effect, where the natural human tendency towards consistency can be used to nudge people towards making certain choices.

the yes ladder process is so simple, you have probably been swayed by it without even noticing in the past. the idea is that by asking small questions to which the answer is “yes”, you prime your conversation partner to say “yes” to the next question.

by building the conversation up using a series of “yes-questions”, you improve the likelihood that the person will say “yes” to the final question – presumably the thing you actually want them to do for you.

studies have shown that this effect produces real results, and that the questions do not even have to be related to one another. the more you get someone to agree with you, the more likely they are to agree with you down the line.

4. use the right channel and medium

the medium you use to ask for help counts as much as the content of the request itself. as the canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.”

this means your request will be treated not only on the basis of its factual content, but the medium used to communicate it. finding the right medium for a request is a subtle and imperfect social skill that is nonetheless extremely valuable.

societal norms in liberal capitalist democracies tend to establish unwritten rules for certain requests. you wouldn’t make a marriage proposal to someone via text message, and you probably wouldn’t fire an employee by email. important, life-changing events demand face-to-face interaction.

similarly, you don’t want to go out of your way to establish a face-to-face meeting for a commonplace request. a text message is perfectly satisfactory for asking a neighbor to help you paint a fence over the weekend.

in most cases, the medium through which you typically interact with the person in question should be sufficient for the request you plan on making – but not always. take time to consider what the appropriate medium for your message is and you will be well-prepared to maximize its success.

make sure you are the one who always pulls through

as a concluding note, it’s important to point out that if you ask someone for help, you implicitly create a bond. while you may be aware of this bond, the person you asked for help may not be.

things happen. obstacles get in the way. mistakes get made. maybe you asked the wrong person for help or the person simply didn’t have the competence or motivation you thought they had. whatever the reason may be, don’t use their failure to excuse your own.

if someone else tries to help you and fails, it doesn’t release you from the obligation to help them when the time comes. this is because the act of helping others cultivates the virtue of generosity and makes you a better, more compassionate person for it. if you withdraw help just because someone else failed, you end up admitting that person was a means to an end for you – not an end to themselves, like they should be.

when it comes down to your internal relationship with yourself, you will derive greater value from being a generous, helpful person than you ever got from other peoples’ generosity. when you are the one who always pulls through, you set the example for others to follow.


Photo by youssef naddam on Unsplash