You’re Asking For Help In The Wrong Way

Why our intuitions about what should make others more likely to help are often dead wrong.

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Asking for help is tricky because it isn’t just about what you say and do. It’s also about what you don’t say or do. There are some specific things you can say that can really backfire. Here are some of the most common ways well-intentioned people screw this up and make it weird for the helper:

Overdoing It on Empathy- In the right amounts, eliciting empathy can be a very effective way to obtain support. Until you take it too far, that is. Because “I feel your pain” stops working the moment the pain becomes too great. Then the person from whom you are trying to elicit empathy is quite likely to shut down entirely and try to get away from you as soon as possible, probably without helping at all. So use empathy as a help-seeking tool with caution, or it might achieve the opposite result you are looking for.

Apologizing Profusely- Have you ever had the (often very uncomfortable) experience of being showered with apologies while hearing a request for help? “I’m so sorry to ask you for this, Heidi, but I could really use your help with this assignment. It’s terrible that I have to ask. I really should be able to do it myself, and I know you are so busy. I just really hate myself for asking.” In general, you should avoid apologizing for simply asking for help. Instead, make a request and offer appreciation when someone helps you. That’s much more satisfying for everyone.

Using Disclaimers- Often, those seeking help are so busy trying to establish that they are not personally weak or greedy that they turn the focus away from the helper and onto themselves. They say things like, “I’m not normally the type that asks for help . . .” or “I wouldn’t ask you if I had a choice . . .” or even “I hate having to ask you for this . . .” The impulse is understandable. But using disclaimers like these is the wrong way to make it better. I can’t get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping you if I know that you appear to be miserable about the whole thing.

Emphasizing How Much the Other Person Will Love Helping- “You’re going to love it! It will be so much fun!” Don’t ever try to explicitly convince someone else that they will find helping you rewarding. It’s true that helping makes people happy, but reminding people of this generally drains the joy out of helping. First, it reeks of manipulation and control, undermining the helper’s sense of autonomy. Second, it’s presumptive.

Portraying the Help You Need as a Tiny, Insignificant Favor- Because asking for help makes us so uncomfortable, and because we really do expect that people will say no, a common tactic is to portray the help we need as a small, piddling, almost invisible, negligible really, barely there, little favor. We might emphasize the overall lack of inconvenience helping us will cause, as in, “Could you drop these contracts off at the client’s? It’s practically on your way home.” The thing is, by minimizing our request, we also minimize the helper’s help and thus minimize any warm feelings the act of helping us might have generated.

Reminding People That They Owe You One- Because asking for help makes us feel weak and icky, we might sometimes be tempted to remind the people we’re asking how we’ve helped them in the past. This, too, is fraught with awkwardness. The bottom line on reciprocity is this: if you have to remind someone that they owe you one, chances are they don’t feel as if they do.

Talking about How Much Their Help Will Benefit You- You know you need to express gratitude and appreciation for other people’s help. And yet people often make a critical mistake: they focus on how they feel—how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help—rather than focusing on the benefactor. We assume that that’s what the helper wants to hear—that they were helping to make us happy, so therefore they must want to hear about how happy we are. But this assumption isn’t quite right. We help because we want to be good people— to live up to our goals and values, and admittedly, to be admired. Helpers want to see themselves positively, which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about you.

When you ask for help, focus on the things that reinforce helpful behavior: a sense of being part of a shared purpose, a positive sense of identity, and the ability to see the effectiveness of one’s help in action.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from REINFORCEMENTS: How to Get People to Help Youby Heidi Grant. Copyright 2018 Heidi Grant. All rights reserved.

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