You probably don’t mind lending a hand when someone needs help. We’re hardwired for altruism. In fact, it triggers a feeling of pleasure, according to neuroscience. When it comes to asking for help, though, it’s not that easy. We often feel awkward or even worrisome. Why is there such a disconnect?
Asking for help is a situation where our intuition is terrible, says social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant, author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You and associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.
“We help others every day—who works alone? And we know what it’s like to be asked,” she says. “Helping and being helped are win/win situations. You get the help you need, and the people helping you get increased well-being; self-esteem is related to helping.”
Related: Use one of these templates to ask for help from your network
Asking for help, however, poses these four challenges:
1. You must make your needs known
People need to know you need help. “That’s a huge obstacle that people don’t see,” says Grant. “We’re all ego-centric and have rich information about what’s happening to us that others don’t. We think it’s obvious we need help, but attention is fragile and we don’t notice others around us.”
Be clear about how they can help. No one will know you need help unless you ask.
2. Let them know help is welcome
People are often hesitant to jump in and help because they fear it won’t be welcome.
“Some people become irritated when they’re offered help they didn’t want when they want to do something themselves,” says Grant. “It should be an explicit invitation. Left to their own devices, people often do nothing because it’s a safer choice. You need to let people know you need and want help.”
3. Be clear that they’re an appropriate helper
The third challenge is due to a diffusion of responsibility, says Grant. “People think, ‘I see you need and want help. Am I the person who is supposed to help you?'” she says. “You often see this in public because nobody knows that they are the one who should step forward. Make it clear who is supposed to help.”
At work, for example, avoid sending a blanket email asking for help. “If people see lots of others in the chain, they feel, ‘Well it’s not a direct ask of me. Why am I the one who should be helping?'” says Grant. “If you’re serious about needing help, it’s worth the time it takes to send individual emails.”
4. Ask the right people
In order to help, we need to believe that we can. Ask for help from people who are equipped to help in the way you need.
“No one wants to give bad help,” says Grant. “We don’t want to give help when we don’t feel qualified. You need to believe your help will be effective, otherwise we feel terrible if we try to help and fail.”
Related: How to ask someone to refer you for a job (and not irritate them)
How to ask
Once you’ve overcome the challenges, make sure you frame the “ask” in a way that makes the process positive. Be realistic and appreciate the fact that people are busy. Think about how you can ask the person help you in a way that will be easiest for them to do it.
General requests for help can be scary for the person you’re asking, says Grant. “Say, ‘Can you help me by doing x, y, and z within the next week?'” she says. “Now I have a pretty good sense that if I can do that effectively, I’m more likely to say ‘yes’ and help you.”
Give thought on how to make it not arduous. Being flexible is important, and be understanding about other’s people circumstances. And be respectful; nobody wants to feel the reason someone is asking for their help is because they don’t feel like doing the task.
“It feels lazy and arrogant in ways that make people unhappy,” says Grant. “Make it clear that you’re not doing that. This is a respectful request, not lazy shirking. ‘I genuinely need help and here’s why.'”
But don’t ruin it
Our perspective when it comes to asking for help, however, is bad, Grant says: “We often see the exchange as being a burden, and then we ask in ways that ruin it for the other person.”
The problem comes when the asker tries to see the situation through the eyes of the person being asked. “Even when we try, we can’t get fully into someone else’s point of view,” says Grant. “So we tend to overfocus on how effortful and arduous and horrible the task will be. We’re focused on how horrible we think it will be, and how can we make it better.”
Related: How to ask for a recommendation that will actually help your career
Too often people apologize while asking or they turn it into a transaction. In other words, you do something nice for me, and I’ll do something nice for you. “If I’m helping you in exchange for something, I can’t feel generous,” says Grant. “It turns the helping into a transaction between strangers, and it undermines my ability to feel good about the relationship. In that moment, we’re so awkwardly trying to make it better, and we really make it worse.”
Helping feels good, and that’s the piece we keep forgetting, says Grant. “It’s rewarding,” she says. “We don’t have to apologize and we don’t have to compensate. If we can embrace the idea that people do want to help, then the rest comes easily.”
Grant Miller Contributor Share on Twitter Grant Miller is the co-founder of Replicated As we enter the 20th year of Salesforce, there’s an interesting opportunity to reflect back on the change that Marc Benioff created with the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model for enterprise software with his launch of Salesforce.com. This model has been validated by the […]
“Teddy, what’s three times five?” It’s asked in a voice I can’t ignore.
“And what’s four times five?” More demanding now.
“Twenty,” I say, dreading the next question, knowing exactly where he’s going with this. Knowing, too, that tears are about to spill.
“Okay crybaby, what’s four times six?”
I think the right answer is just four higher than the last one–or is it six higher?–but I can’t think, and instead I feel a yawn coming. The body’s same self-sabotaging illogic that’s got me crying as the worst imaginable moment. Yawning will really piss him off.
I lose out to the yawn.
“Bored stupid, are you? Or just plain dumb? You’ll never get through the fourth grade!” Dad’s voice is rising now. And here it is: “You stupid little shit.”
Bullying is a form of violence. It’s intended to dominate a victim into submission. When we’re under attack, our rational minds shut down, moving into their self-protective “fight-or-flight” modes. (We typically learn about this process in high school biology class, as I’d wind up discovering five years after passing the fourth grade, no thanks to my father.) When we can’t fight or run away, we freeze or surrender. These are normal human responses to being in danger.
My dad was a bully. And experiences like learning my multiplication tables taught me a lot about bullying. His attacks drove away any possibility of remembering what four times anything was. It gave him absolute power over me. It still pains me to write this, to recall the deep well of absolute despair into which he’d plunge me. The whole exercise wasn’t about learning; it was about him being “smarter” than I was, and proving it by emotional blunt force, shattering any hope of returning back into the world as a normal kid.
Bullies bully to be in control because they feel powerless themselves. They bully not to inform, not to help. Theirs is never constructive criticism; it’s destructive criticism. (Even so, I never missed my father’s point: I needed to learn my multiplication tables and hadn’t put the time in.) I came to realize, as well, that bullying is situational; bullies usually only bully under certain circumstances. Somewhere deep down (and among other motivations having nothing to do with me), my father was afraid I wouldn’t be successful. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to help without demeaning and shaming me. If I resisted or didn’t respond, he could only escalate; for him, there was no gentler approach.
I wasn’t stupid, and I knew it even as he berated me. I was pretty sure I was smarter than most kids in my class. I also knew I was smarter than he was.
I wasn’t a crybaby, either. I knew I was just overwhelmed by my father’s ruthlessness. I’d seen my mother in tears from his cruelty, too.
Bullies follow patterns of their own design, inevitably turning their victims into skilled observers of human behavior. I compiled a mental encyclopedia of all the situations that might trigger my dad and did everything I could to avoid them. Looking back, it’s easy to see that I developed anti-bullying techniques unconsciously, purely out of survival. I couldn’t change my father and I couldn’t leave him. But I learned through trial and error how to reduce my vulnerability. These are a few of the rules I’d cobbled together by age 11 or 12:
Keep your distance. I stayed away from my dad as much as possible, and I made plans to leave home as soon as possible.
Flatter. When I had to spend time with my father, I praised his strengths to keep him from finding fault with me. The flattery, combined with sidestepping sensitive subjects, actually created a workable dynamic between us much of the time.
Tell someone when you can. Once after getting caught running away from home, I asked the priest of our church for help. I knew that using an authority my father would respect could help keep him in check for a while.
My father’s bullying was out in the open, overt and aggressive. There was nothing subtle about it, and my resistance strategies were just as makeshift as you’d expect from a kid weathering that type of crossfire. But they kept me going. In the business world, I later found, bullying is usually (but not always) more masked, and more sophisticated.
Bullying to curry favor
At first I think it’s my fault, but after six months in my first professional position, I realize my new boss is sneaky, deceptive, and mean. He takes credit for others’ work and demeans his staff in public. He invents infractions to accuse his team members of when his superiors are around. He seems motivated to build his reputation as a hard-driving manager focused intently on continuous improvement–the favored leadership style of the moment. Any attempt to protest earns swift humiliation and blame. We staffers resort to total passivity to survive.
“People leave bosses, not jobs,” they say, and it’s true. I quit after nine months.
Bullying to seem smart
It’s years later. I’m running a design firm. No one on my staff is as poised or confident as Gretchen when interacting with clients. But her coworkers are starting to resist joining her on projects. I suspect something is wrong, but Gretchen is responsible for substantial billings. People who can manage clients are hard to find and harder to replace. So I bury my concerns.
Then two designers approach me to speak about her confidentially. “Ted, she gets us to contribute designs on her projects,” Terry starts. “She adds our best ideas to her solutions. Then she presents using our work to get the client to see the benefits of hers.”
Sally agrees. “She has an imperialistic style with us. She’s superior and disdainful, and she ignores our comments. She even rolls her eyes when we try to speak up. Once she made me work all night after I’d critiqued her solution.”
I realize that I’ve avoided giving my star player the corrective feedback she needs. I’ve been too afraid of losing her. I make an appointment to speak with Gretchen the next day. When I offer some gentle pointers about working more collaboratively, she seems receptive, and I feel relieved. Duty done.
Months pass, and I turn my attention elsewhere. Then Kay, one of my creative directors, appears at my door.
“Ted, Gretchen has to go, or I’m out of here.”
“What happened?” I ask, fully anticipating the answer.
“I know you spent a bunch of time with Gretchen last fall, but nothing actually changed. She just got sneakier. She’ll never change.”
Gretchen doesn’t use profanity, name call, or raise her voice like my father did. But she uses her position of authority to demean, dismiss, and dominate exactly like he did. Sadly, she’s equally incapable of seeing that she could get better results by working with her team than by bullying them.
I let Gretchen go the next day.
Bullying to hide insecurity
Paul is an account director with a bad habit: He makes creative commitments to clients without consulting his team, earning him the nickname “PowerPoint Paul,” because he once went into a slide deck overnight to change a design to something he thought the client would like better.
I call him on it. He launches into a series of justifications that in his mind made it okay to circumvent his team. Is he bullying them? Not exactly, but Paul’s knack for deceitfully taking control and undermining his colleagues isn’t far off the mark–and I suspect that his own lack of confidence is the culprit. Meanwhile, his coworkers feel powerless, forced to submit to his way of doing things.
When I describe to him a series of similar incidents I’d been made aware of, Paul starts crying. Once he recovers we map out a better way for him to approach the creative team with client concerns. With a bit of coaching and help from his colleagues, he’s eventually able to change tack and gradually rebuilds trust with his team. And I’m able to retain a talented account manager.
In the years since learning my multiplication tables and moving on to tackle Gretchen- and Paul-size problems, I’ve revised my playbook for handling bullies:
Remember it’s not about you. Bullies aren’t bullies out of nowhere. My dad was a war vet. We never talked about it, but he could very well have been suffering from post-traumatic stress. I later came to realize that his bullying, while painful for me, was really far more about him.
Observe, and plan an escape. Whenever my father was bullying me, I was unable to do anything but shut down and take it. But I always knew what was going on. Recognize the behavior you’re experiencing for what it is–and know that the trauma will pass. Then strategically plan your escape from the tyranny, like Kay managed to do. Commit to not weathering abuse indefinitely.
Find support. Bullies can leave you feeling ashamed or unworthy of others’ respect, and the tendency is to isolate yourself so others don’t see that. But seeking help and advice from trusted friends, peers, or a professional can help you find a path forward. Isolation will only drive you deeper into submission. If you decide to report the bully, choose an authority carefully–one who has the resources to assist you, confidentially if need be, and won’t make the situation worse (even unintentionally).
Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that we’ll ever live in a bully-free world. But understanding bullies’ motivations, tactics, and patterns can help you contain and escape them.
For me, total escape from dad’s bullying didn’t come until I took my first professional position. I’d been slowly distancing myself from home, and him, for years–first with part-time jobs that paid for clothes and cars, and later with full-time summer employment that included room and board. But it was my first job as a design illustrator that allowed me to step away from him completely.
Best of all, my starting salary was more than he’d ever made. I calculated that one in my head without even trying.