Ask and You Shall Receive

Feb 15, 2024

Giving freely and asking for help are two sides of the same coin. In a previous article, we discussed the non-obvious benefits of helping others. Now it’s time to explore why you should be comfortable asking your network for help. Beyond the obvious potential benefits, we will dive into the main reasons that tend to hold you back and why they shouldn’t, before sharing our take on how to structure your requests for the best possible outcome.

Asking For Help Benefits You across Major Areas of Your Career

Most people don’t have a crystal ball. If you don’t ask, odds are, you’re missing out on someone providing you with crucial help - whether it’s for a recommendation for an open position, an introduction to an investor or an obscure bug in your code that is driving you nuts. It’s really quite obvious - a helping hand at the right moment can improve your odds of success, give you a leg up on the competition and help you solve problems faster.

Research also shows that teams that foster an open environment of asking and receiving help tend to flourish. Even beyond your close circle, reaching out to your “weak ties”, or casual acquaintances, with a relevant and well-formulated request, instead of assuming they can’t or are not willing to help, can be rewarding: they can carry your request beyond your bubble and provide access to new information and novel approaches.

People are much more willing to help than most of us generally assume. Giving freely benefits them as well! And while overdoing it might backfire or lead to diminishing returns at some point, it definitely beats the alternative of not asking at all.

This all seems quite obvious. So what holds us back? Let’s look at some of the most common reasons which all, unsurprisingly, stem from our own self-perception.

Being Perceived as Unknowledgeable

Research shows that if you make a thoughtful request, you will be seen as more competent, not less. Smart people ask for what they need. It conveys the wisdom that you know what you don’t know and know when to ask. Think Dunning-Kruger (or google it!). Making the right request, to the right person has the opposite effect. It shows you are self-aware.

Not Being Able to Reciprocate

The second misconception is the worry that the privilege to ask hasn’t been earned yet. The act of giving and receiving is not a two-way transaction, but rather a cycle with the objective to be both a giver and receiver, in equal measure, over time. Giving should mean generously helping others, even—perhaps especially—when they haven’t helped you. And receiving should mean asking for help whenever you need it, accepting it with gratitude, and understanding that you can pay it back, or forward, down the line.

Appearing Selfish

Finally, many avoid asking because they fear being seen as selfish. Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin: You need at least a first request for help to trigger the cycle. Hence, asking for help is not selfish: without it, no help could be given. It’s just important to consider not becoming a “Taker”, someone who is only taking without giving back or paying it forward, as described by Adam Grant (we can highly recommend his TED talk on this topic). Being a “Giver”, generously helping without expectations of return, is the road to long-term success.

How to Ask?

With that out of the way, let’s look at how to make requests properly.

When you ask someone for help, you are asking them to dedicate time and energy to you. So first and foremost, be clear on what you need and why. You should make sure to only request something you genuinely need.

Next, think about who to ask: consider the expertise someone has on the subject and how accessible they are to you. Approaching many people in a 'spray and pray' approach is not only ineffective but can damage your relationships. Be deliberate about who you ask for help from and make sure you have a reason why that person is uniquely qualified to help you.

Finally, frame your request precisely and make it as actionable as possible. Provide all relevant information (deadlines, reasoning, etc), and try to make fulfilling that request as easy as possible. For example, if you’re asking for an introduction, share the reason why the intro makes sense, who exactly you want to be introduced to and a brief text the person can simply forward. Any way you can reduce the mental load and actual effort will be appreciated and increases the chances of your request being fulfilled.

Those who are well-regarded and the most productive freely help others and also freely ask for help when they need it. The circulation of resources through your networks depends as much on seeking help as it does on providing it. A timely and thoughtful request starts the wheel turning. What we need is often much more attainable than we think, and people are generally much more generous with their help than we tend to believe. So get out of your comfort zone and just ask.

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