Help wanted: Seeking help effectively

A photo of a lone minion toy standing in an anticpatory state in a shadow adjacent to sunshine

Much is written extoling the virtue of helping others and how to do this. All useful stuff. This article is about seeking the help of others: Because others don’t always know if and when you need or want help; or know what help would be useful to provide.

It’s a useful skill to develop in being able to define what would be helpful to self, and to ask others for that help. This isn’t selfish. You can create a wonderful flow of help-providing behaviour as you improve your own help-seeking behaviour. And you’ll improve your own help-providing behaviour as you appreciate what effective help looks and feels like.

As the sovereign of your workscape, you can be a person who actively seeks help for You. The help you seek can be useful across any of the seven Responsibilities as you make and implement decisions in leading self. This isn’t laziness or weakness … it’s practical, sensible and sometimes more efficient and effective. You are unlikely to have all the resources, knowledge and expertise you need.


Common reasons why people don’t ask for help (and what to do about that)

We all need help at different times and places of our lives. It can be tough to admit this, and to ask for help from someone else. For reasons like …

A. I don’t want to appear lacking in some way – lacking skill/ability, time, motivation, independence, resources, connections, etc.
Advice: Accept you don’t know or have everything. Be realistic. Be humble. Get out of your own way!

B. I believe it’s quicker and easier to do the work myself.
○ Consider – is it really? There are probably a lot of hidden steps in what it takes you to do a common task. Do a side-project and track the actual steps to get a realistic perspective. Identify which steps could actually be done by someone else.
○ Consider what is the best use of your time, attention and energy – and use these for things that truly only you can do. Work smarter, not harder.
○ Consider sharing the work rather a complete delegation. The presence of a collaborator might actually expedite things, get you working productively and clear some obstacles.
○ Experiment with a scoping step. If you can get fluent at scoping activity (i.e. defining the work to be done or achieved), you may find it easier to ‘delegate’ under certain conditions.
○ Refer to point A.

C. I can’t identify who would be appropriate to ask.
○ If you haven’t got a good sense of the What and Why of seeking help, it will likely seem impossible to match a Who. Take time to crystalise these aspects and it might indicate the Who of a good fit.
○ Start to cultivate a mental list of people who might be great help-providers. Pay attention to the desirable qualities of valued past help-providers.

D. I feel that asking for help is an imposition on others, and I don’t want to be perceived as a burden.

○ Shift your mindset. Others would probably jump at the change to help you and they don’t see it as a hardship.

○ Pick good people and approach them with the visible option to Say No – then it doesn’t have to be nuisance. Just because you Ask, doesn’t give you the right to expect that you will Get what you want: We are mature adults – not two-year-old children.


An approach to seeking help

In actively seeking help, there are four interrelated things to think about:

  1. Why do I want help? This is about intentions and purpose.
  2. What help do I need? This is about scoping and boundaries.
  3. Who will I ask for help? This is about connecting the need and a person.
  4. How will I present my request? This is about taking the first steps to ask for help.


1. Why do I want help?

I’m going to assume you’ve moved past the reasons why you might not seek help, and are ready to look forward.

Get clear on what’s creating the situation for you to consider seeking help. You don’t always have to have a specific idea – a vague sense is enough. Whatever knowledge you have at this point, helps shape your decisions about the about the What, When, How and Who of the help you really seek. Use such knowledge as a seed to be germinated.

Ask yourself the question: What help will I value? Let the answer be about the outcome(s) you seek, not the steps to take along the way. Someone’s help can relieve pain; achieve extra gains; clear obstacles; provide support through challenges; free up your capacity; release your productivity; conquer your limitations; and contribute the value that they can add.

Consider where along the journey of help-seeking you have you got. You may have a defined problem, and are ready to get help with a solution. Or a problem may be ill-defined and help is needed in defining the problem. Or maybe there’s not even yet a strong sense that there’s a problem … it could simply be an opportunity you want to explore. It’s good to write down where you are at. Crystalising your thoughts can sometimes reveal a path towards the outcome you seek.


2. What help do I need?

Broad details are good; specific details that reflect what’s important to you are better. Aim for clarity!

Advice, help and love are three different things and it’s easy to confuse them in what we actually need, what we ask for, and what we give.
~ Johnnie Moore, on advice he would give his younger self

Johnnie makes a great point. In my own reflections, I’ve identified four broad types of what I might seek when I want help. I’ve been a bit playful by the labels I give these.

These two are probably very familiar:
Work – a task or action that someone can do for you
Fork – getting feedback, insight, ideas, advice or a resource to fuel, enable or progress an activity

These two might seem a little odd. Though they can be strong (undeclared) intentions for help-seeking behaviour.
Folk – achieving a sense of connection to others; of being seen and affirmed as part of a group
Frack – relieving a painful frustrating moment by having someone to listen and witness it

It can be a challenge to get the help you really need or want. Value is in the eye of the beholder. Or in this case in the eye of the person seeking help.

I shared thoughts a while back using a metaphor about seeking ‘cake’ to explain my frustration with a particular help-seeking experience. Rather than talking about the specific help-seeking situation, which some in my network were part of, I used the metaphor to give examples of the type of help-responses I got compared to the help-responses I valued. Other people joined in commenting on a LinkedIn post, using the metaphor to share different help-responses that they would value.

I’ve learnt from painful experience that people can have unspoken, even unconscious, expectations of what help they seek. They appear to be asking for help of the ‘work’ type, and it turns out it was help of the ‘folk’ type that they really sought. When the assistance provided doesn’t match up with what is actually sought, there’s a high risk of conflict, and damage to a relationship.

The help you seek and value is unlikely to be boundless. By this I mean, there are likely conditions and constraints that help refine what is possible and desirable – as well as what is not. There may be constraints about what you can provide to the person who would give help. There may be time constraints about when something is undertaken or completed. You may require accountability of the person who helps – that is to say, you need to know you can count on them to fulfil certain conditions, like meeting a deadline or keeping you apprised of progress.

Write down your help-request as a simple ‘statement of work’. This helps with getting specific and outlining a scope to work within. Include what you know or don’t know; what resources you think are indicated and which you can provide, and those you don’t have access to; and what steps you need to be covered and where there is flexibility about how someone else might approach the situation. This may be something you hand to another person, or it may be simply a further crystallisation and organisation of your thoughts.

Now you are in a good position to consider Who is a good match to the need.


3. Who will I ask for help?

Receiving help from someone is an opportunity for them to share value they have with you, and strengthen the relationship between you. Keep this mindset in the foreground, and push any thoughts about being a burden to the background.

A good general step is to identify all the people who have willing provided you help in the past. Think about what you valued in the manner of how they helped you, and the level of confidence you have in receiving help from them again. Also identify the people who have offered to help you – and have not yet done so. Think about the nature of the help they offered, and whether they gave any conditions under which such help might be given.

To get help that best serves your specific need, consider who has the expertise and resources that fit the need, and what obligations or conditions arise from their assistance. Write a list of people who have general help-providing qualities, and rank them in order of preference. There may be Pros and Cons to consider when thinking about particular individuals and the specifics of the help you seek on this occasion.

Friends and family will often help you for no charge. Often with the unspoken expectation of a favour or reciprocity that will happen at some other time over the long period of your relationship. This can be murky territory as the unspoken expectations are not always shared or agreed upon.

Paid assistance comes with an expectation of quality due to the skilled expert nature of the competency you need. There’s typically clearer terms and conditions to negotiate.

While it’s good to have an optimistic attitude that a person will say yes to your request, prepare to approach someone calmly with the possibly that they say No. You may have to be the person to encourage them to consider that No is a valid option.


4. How will I present my request?

Present your request to an appropriate person, in person. Research reveals that it’s more effective to ask for help face-to-face than over an email or text message – up to 34 more times effective!

Plan to have a conversation with dialogue – not a single-side monologue. It’s good that the help-provider asks questions to make sense of what is sought and to explore your expectations. It’s also good to check for what has been understood of your request. Invite the person to reflect back to you what they understand. Don’t just be satisfied with a ‘Yes (I understand)’ response. Ask something like: What you do you make of my request.

Both of your will want assumptions to be surfaced and resolved; with any conditions and constraints understood before being explicitly accepted. Consider expectations about the ‘help’ itself as well as the relationship you have, and the approach that is taken. It can be helpful to set check-in points and milestones if the help goes over time – particularly to enable mutual accountability.

[A side-note for help-providers: One strategy that has worked for me to check I am on the same page as the help-seeker in terms of scope and your fitness to be a relevant help-provider is to ask, Why me? It sounds simple and ridiculous to ask. Particularly if you are honoured that your help has been sought. However, I’ve discovered that the person had something unspoken that they thought I would also contribute in response to their need – and that was not something I wanted to provide.]


After receiving the help, show your appreciation. A meaningful specific statement of gratitude can be incredibly positively potent. Consider writing a publicly shared recommendation or testimonial. Complete any matters of compensation in a timely fashion. Offer to be a help-provider when they are seeking help.


Are you ready to put this advice into action? Think about a genuine situation today, when you can start to practice effective help-seeking behaviour. And be on the lookout to kindly response to and encourage a person who is practicing new help-seeking behaviour.

May your help-seeking activity prove to be … helpful!


Helen Palmer, Founder of Self unLimited, has not followed a traditional path in her ‘career’, nor does she intend to. It’s been her personal experience that she’s made plans, then life happened and things went in a direction that wasn’t anticipated. And that has often created situations ideal for seeking the help of others. She’s learnt a thing or two from these experiences which she hopes will make a positive difference for others.

(Amended) Photo by Jonas Stolle on Unsplash