The more I see articles about how busy we all are or stressed we are or upset we are, and how it’s become some sort of weird badge of honor, the more I’m convinced Americans (because I live and work here) have a core problem.
We don’t know how to ask for help.
We like to think we are a resilient bunch, forged by the wilderness, every person for him/herself. We don’t need the support of others – we’re independent, dammit! After all, we left Europe because we wanted to do things OUR way. We fought the British because they wouldn’t recognize our rights to representation, so screw them! We’ll declare ourselves sovereign.Then we fought, scratched and hornswaggled (that’s a fancy way of saying tricked or lied) our way to the West Coast. There’s that “can do” attitude!
You hear it whenever people proclaim with pride they are “self-made.” You sense it when people keep it quiet that they’ve relied on public assistance or the kindness of strangers. And you see it when confused kids don’t raise their hands in school to ask a question.
It’s very bizarre to me, because while we ARE a nation of independent go-getters with a can-do attitude who like to pretend they can do everything themselves; we are also a nation of incredibly community-minded folks who band together to help those in need. Don’t believe me? Check out GoFundMe or CaringBridge and marvel at the capacity of humans to want to help others. But that makes us feel better because we’re OFFERING help, not really ASKING for it. I mean, look at how many of those sites are set up by someone other than the person who needs the help.
When you look around our society right now, it’s clear there are those who need help. It might be because of the floods in Baton Rouge (just because it stopped raining doesn’t mean their need is gone); maybe recent events have shaken them and they don’t know how to talk about it; maybe their water heater went out and they just can’t afford a replacement; maybe they deal with violence in their own home; maybe they suffer from depression.
Take a look at the people you work next to every day. Do you know what they are dealing with? Would you know how to help them if they asked? Would they even ask? Now take a look at yourself. Chances are, you’re dealing with something. It could be as serious a cancer scare. Or it could be as simple as feeling overwhelmed by projects. Would YOU ask a coworker for help?
There are so many reasons we refuse to ask – ego, fear of losing credibility at work, cultural concerns about appearing weak, worried about putting others in an uncomfortable situation, honest belief that we can “handle it.” While these all feel valid in the moment, the reality is that none of them will kill you. It might make you and others feel awkward for a couple minutes, but that will pass.
If you work with people you think need to ask for help but don’t seem to be willing to do it, try one of the following techniques:
- Ask for help first: I know, right?! So flipping obvious. And yet we don’t do it. This is especially powerful for leaders because it makes you vulnerable and proves to the team that asking for help is TOTALLY OKAY. In fact, it’s encouraged.
- Shut up and listen: Your coworkers might be asking for help without saying the actual words. Maybe their complaints about being tired or stressed have increased. Maybe they’ve dropped some hints about deadlines. Pay attention to changes in how they talk and act.
- Don’t make it about you: We LOVE to share stories about our own problems. We do it for (mostly) altruistic reasons; we’re trying to show “we’ve been there.” Guess what – they don’t care. Unless they point blank ask you if you’ve been in the same situation, don’t start talking about how tough it was when you had a hangnail, so you TOTALLY get why open heart surgery would be scary.
- Specifically offer to help: Some people just aren’t going to ask for help. They think it’s somehow rude. Offer to help a very specific step in the process. “I can print out those reports and deliver them to the project team.” “I’ll go to this meeting and that will give you time to catch up on emails.” “How about I bring your family some dinner this Thursday so you can run to the hospital and see your grandfather?” This keeps the person from getting overwhelmed and keeps them from feeling like they’re putting you out because YOU offered.
- Respect their wishes: Demonstrate your willingness to help through action, not words. If someone approaches you, give them your attention. If someone looks upset, just stay by them. If they say they want to be alone or don’t want to talk about it, tell them it’s okay…but you’re just down the hall if they need you. Everyone processes things differently – give them room to do that. But…
- Don’t believe them when they say “I’m fine,” and they obviously aren’t: People in the midst of crisis may be in denial. If you see someone who is really struggling (disheveled appearance, changes in behavior), reach out. Take them to lunch. Let them know they are not alone…and they don’t have to be.
You can be independent, feisty, sassy, brilliant, powerful, successful…and still ask for help. You can be confused, frustrated, out of your depth, upset, angry, exasperated…and still OFFER help. That’s the beauty of being a human being. We are a walking contradiction. We are complicated. We are a mess. We are amazing.
We can all ask for help. We can all offer help.
You just have to do it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and then allows you to learn something new. ~ Barack Obama