This is one of the most powerful words in the English language. The mere utterance moves people to respond. Shouting it will draw attention, and strangers will spring into action. It inspires us to give. It motivates us to self-sacrifice. The thought that someone needs our help might override our own instincts, for self-preservation, or at least the fear of being hurt or humiliated. And yet, we are often afraid to ask for help, even when we desperately need it. Why, then, are we so willing to offer help and yet not able to request it?
I was shopping for dinner at my favorite market, and I asked the butcher for two things: coarse-ground beef for chili and a cut-up fryer. The young guy had to get his manager because he wasn’t authorized to operate the saw to cut the chicken. I asked him to go ahead and do that for me, if he didn’t mind. He was more than happy to ask, and the manager took care of me without hesitation. All I had to do was ask.
I find myself asking people more and more when I genuinely need help, mainly because I know how helping people brings me joy and makes me feel fulfilled. So I don’t have a problem asking. I don’t take advantage of people. But I know there are things that I would do for someone if it is an inconvenience for that person and especially if it’s a task I enjoy doing or that distracts me from drudgery. On the other hand, I have found great value in saying ‘no’.
‘No’ doesn’t have to be a forceful rejection of someone’s request. I am often asked to do something by a coworker that that person should know how to do, and that is their responsibility in the first place. One of my flaws is that I tend to bend over backward to help people, even when it is an imposition and I should be doing something else. On a rare occasion that I have flat-out denied to do something (I could have been fired), that person has just now started talking to me again after 3 years. I try not to let these things bother me, but averting disappointment is a major motivator for me. I think I am not alone, here.
I hate letting people down, even when I am not at fault and there was no avenue for me to come to the rescue. It is fortunate that my job doesn’t require me to save lives, and that is something I remind co-workers of, that the worst case scenario is that someone will be disappointed, provided no one violates policy or law. At that point, all bets are off.
Asking for help, however, is not as risky as we might imagine it to be. A person can refuse to help, and that is their right. Some people are assholes. But that should not stop us from seeking help when we need it. I learned recently that sometimes you cannot do everything yourself, and you don’t have to be a martyr, trying to take it on all by yourself. But you won’t get help from people by declaring to the crowd, “I need a volunteer!” That moment when everyone steps up simultaneously makes for great cinema, but I’ve never seen it happen in real life. Don’t wait for it to happen magically. Leave that to Disney.
As much as we might think we don’t like being told what to do, most of us will respond to that, at least when it’s a gentle, persuasive appeal. I like the “congratulations! You’ve been chosen to help me…” line. I also used, “good news! We’re going to work together on a project.” You’d be surprised how well a little sarcastic humor is received. Don’t be afraid to be turned down. It’s okay to refuse sometimes. Just don’t be that guy. You know who I’m talking about.
Don’t be surprised when someone offers to help you. Most of us are looking for opportunities to be of some assistance. There’s something ingrained in us that makes us crave it, that satisfaction we get from helping another person. Actually, other creatures don’t seem to share our values. (I think polar bears kill their young or something like that. That’s probably something to do with food supplies and the wilderness, which we don’t run into much in the US.) all that being said, I’m still not sure what most of us are afraid of. I think I’ll make it a new year’s resolution to ask for help more often.