How to ask for help

One time I was hitch-hiking up the Sunshine Coast. I would spy out a likely victim in a ferry line or at a gas station and ask for a ride. I noticed that if I asked carefully, drivers would go miles out of their way to deliver me safely to my destination. They would insist on buying me lunch. They would show me pictures of their grandchildren, and tell me their most tragic and intimate stories. And at the end of the ride the drivers often thanked me profusely for asking them for a ride. They seemed so satisfied with their end of the bargain…as if, in asking for help, I had given them a gift. And I began to think that maybe I had.

My working passion is for “free” public projects – like The Commercial Drive Festival, and Momentum Magazine. People sometimes say things to me like, “you get so much done,” and this makes me laugh, because I am a lazy hedonist. The truth is that in order to accomplish what I want to do, I have had to learn how to ask for help…lots of it, and usually, for “free.” And I have noticed that the more help I get, the more “I” accomplish – and the more time I get to spend lying on the beach.

Asking for help can feel like a humiliating admission, and we are trained to believe that asking for help is a sign of inadequacy or weakness. But really, there is nothing weak in admitting that you can’t fill every role. Asking for help simply means recognizing the value of the people around us, honouring their strengths, and noticing how they fit into the big puzzle. The act of helping enriches both the helper and the helpee. There are two truths to this nicely balanced equation.

The first truth is: everybody needs help. We always need assistance, advice, and support. Our anthill is a complex and interdependent place, and pretending we are “independent” makes for a lonely path. What’s more, it makes getting things done all that much slower and more painful.

The second truth is: everybody wants to help. We all want do good in the world. We crave the chance to demonstrate our abilities. We wants to use our accumulated wealth and wisdom well. And we all want to be recognized, appreciated, and thanked.

What stops people from helping is fear that their offer will be abused. We are afraid of getting rooked into doing something much more demanding or boring or time-consuming than we signed on for. We don’t want to be handed a task that we can’t do, or that we will simply loathe doing. Most of all we don’t want to be dismissed at the end of the task, without thanks or a sandwich for the road.

Here are six tips for asking for help, which allow people to accept your offer gladly and confidently:

1 Recognize people’s abilities and appeal to them (tall guys love being asked to change lightbulbs on the ceiling).
2 Be honest about the task. Tell exactly how long it will take, and what the helper will need to do.
3 Let the helper know that the task, even if small or menial, is important and will be appreciated (“want to be a hero for cheap?”).
4 Let people make the decision to help of their own free will. Tell them that if they can’t do it or aren’t interested, you will find someone else to do it. If they say no, be gracious and thank them anyway. Whining or guilt-tripping is counterproductive.
5 Give the helper as much creativity in the task as possible. Sometimes just asking someone to solve a problem is better than telling them the solution – it makes the task that much more satisfying.
6 Be genuinely grateful, and generous in your recognition and thanks.

At the end of my hitch-hiking trip I had a vision of a monk with a brass bowl going from door to door begging for alms. I thought, what a great job that monk has… asking for help and doling out karma in return. Then I put on more sunscreen, rolled over, and took a nap.

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