by Jim Bruce
[Today’s author, Jim Bruce, is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be contacted at email@example.com.]
Everyone needs help from time to time. Yet, asking for that help is difficult. It often makes you very uncomfortable. Further, I’ve found, it becomes even more difficult as your responsibilities increase.
I confess that, after almost half a century of work as a professional, I still have difficulty asking for help of any kind, no matter from whom:
My complete list of times when I have avoided asking for help is very, very long and I expect yours might be as well. Sometimes, our behavior regarding asking for help is driven by deeply entrenched, learned behaviors, many likely learned when we were young children.
Two examples may provide useful illustrations: Let me begin with a story about my father, a man who did not finish what we know as high school. He worked all his life with his hands. I don’t remember him ever asking for help. He would always do the very best he could, and usually that was quite good, and hope that would be good enough. Yet, though he never asked for help, he was always there to help others even when they do not ask. His greatest achievement, according to him, was to recognize that his children needed more education than he had and that set my brother and I on a path that eventually led both of us to MIT, graduate degrees and successful careers.
A second example may further illustrate my reluctance to ask for help. One year in the mid-1940s as kids, my brother and I were spending our summer vacation with our mother’s parents. He was a railroad section foreman and they lived in a very small East Texas town. He and his crew were responsible for maintaining a 20 or so mile section of railroad track. Texas was very segregated at that time and all of his workers were Black men.
On that particular day one of the jobs was shoveling out the accumulated excrement behind the outhouses — at his house (it had no plumbing of any kind), at the houses of the few workers who were provided housing, and at the station house near the town’s “center.” When I went looking for my grandfather I found him at the back of one to the outhouses shoveling away, along with one of the workmen.
Growing up in a segregated environment as I had, this was totally unexpected. So, that evening I asked my grandfather, “Why?” His answer was as stern as I ever heard him speak: “James Donald, never ask anyone to do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourself.” (This has led me, whenever possible, to always join in the work when I ask for help.)
These two stories – my father’s reluctance to ask for help and my grandfather’s admonition that if you asked, you had to do some of the work – perhaps more than anything else, have shaped my reluctance to ask for help, particularly when I am not able to be part of the solution. Others may have their own life-stories that inform their personal approaches to asking, or not asking, for help. For example: You ask yourself, why anyone would take their valuable time to help me? Yet, research has demonstrated that we are conditioned to help each other, if only we’re asked. Joan Rosenberg, writing in Psychology Today, put it this way: “… there is ultimately very little that any of us do to succeed fully on our own, even if that is hard to acknowledge.”1
You likely have other reasons why you don’t ask for help. Nora Klaver, in her book, “May Day! Asking for help in Times of Need”2 says it this way: “Everyone hates asking for help. We’re afraid of seeming weak. We think it’s an admission of failure. We simply don’t know how. So instead we continue to struggle on alone with both day-to-day burdens and serious crises. … we make things much harder on ourselves by not reaching out.”
If you want help, you have to admit to yourself that you really want help, and then you have to ask for it. And, that is part of being human and is a sign of strength. It also requires you to willingly make yourself vulnerable.
So, how do we ask for help? Heidi Grant3, Director of Research & Development for EY Americas Learning and Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University, in her 2019 TED Talk “How to ask for help — and get a yes,” provides a process that should reduce your anxiety in asking and lead to successes on your part:
So, when you need help, ask for it in a way that increases the likelihood that you will get a “yes,” and then when you get the result, be thankful, help the other person(s) feel awesome for having helped you.
I trust that you and those around you will have a wonderful, awesome week. And, when you do need help, do ask for it!
. . . . jim