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asking for help

I will be the first to admit, I hate asking for help…or at least I used to.  On the other side of the spectrum, I love helping others whenever I can, so I’m at a constant inner struggle of why I am reluctant to ask for something I am so willing to give.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the ideas of giving and receiving help and what it really means in the long term, but I know it is something that many people I come into contact with struggle with in their careers.

This week, especially, the notion of asking and receiving help came to me in several forms.  Yesterday, I reached out to a twitter acquaintance for a favor.  I was very humble and cautious in asking the favor, and his kind response to me was a good reminder to myself that it’s okay to ask for help, people naturally want to help, and after all, as he put it, “That’s what networks are for.”

In our careers especially, we are often afraid to ask for help.  Many of us have been conditioned that asking for assistance is a sign of weakness. However, part of what makes great leaders great is that they understand their strengths and weaknesses.  And in understanding their weaknesses, leaders are able to delegate tasks and ask for guidance from others in their network to overcome those weaknesses.  Thus their own weakness has actually become a source of leverage, elevating them to be better.

The other side of asking for help is our innate fear of rejection.  Yes, sometimes people will say no, but more times than not, people will say yes. In fact, we often grossly underestimate the willingness of others to offer their help, sometimes as much as 50%.  And guess what, if we don’t ask, we’ll never know what a person’s response would have been, anyway.

But, there’s more to giving and receiving help than the sheer act of asking and/or agreeing to offer assistance.  Every week I am approached by people asking for help in the job search.  I can’t always help everyone, but I try to help where I can.  The most difficult part is assessing how I can help each person, because what many people often fail to do is to tell me exactly how I can help them.

Many people assume: you’re the expert; you should know how to help me. But, everyone is different in what they need and what their own capabilities are.  Some people just need some assurance, others need a full scale attack plan, and some just want introductions.  Often I will struggle offering unneeded advice and suggestions until the other person either moves on frustrated or has a Eureka moment and divulges their real need.

I struggled with this over the week with a good friend who is in the midst of a job search.  I know that I can help him, and I have made introductions on his behalf and forwarded his resume, however, it wasn’t until he started coming to me with specific requests that I actually felt like I was aiding the process and started to feel good—before I was just throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping something would have a positive effect.

I hate to burst people’s bubbles but that majority of us are not mind readers.  We cannot always foresee how we can help and even if we can, how we may see our offering assistance is often not the help the other person is seeking.

I ran into this fault of my own when I experienced an injury this week.  My friends were concerned, many offered assistance to take me to the doctor or to run errands, which I declined.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want their help or that I was not appreciative, but I didn’t need what they were offering.

And, because I had declined their help, I didn’t ask my friends for what I really needed which was simply some company because I am terrible at being injured—I simply prefer to pretend nothing is wrong and in my own mind I feel I recover faster around others because I act stronger around people than I what I may really feel.

The other side of this is that often after people offer their help, we wait on them to start helping instead of initiating the process.  Then, when they don’t follow-up, we’re disappointed, and we feel badly asking for help because of this disappointment.  This is our own fault.

If you tell a co-worker you need help with a project, to get the best results, you must provide instruction on what it is you need help with in order to create a path forward.  The same goes for help with a job search, asking customers to provide feedback on a product or service, getting a second opinion on an interview, or any other type of help you may need in your career.

Remember, people want to help, and they are sincere in that desire.  It is your responsibility and not theirs to follow-up and be honest about what help you need.  By doing this you create a win-win for both sides.  You get the help you need, and the other person feels good about providing support that matters.  And when that happens, people’s needs on both sides get met and it often gives us a chance to connect in a more meaningful way because those warm, fuzzy feelings we all love come out in abundance (or at least peak out.)

Don’t forget gratitude.  Remember to say thank you, even when you might not have taken someone up on their offer of assistance. Feel free to overwhelm them with your appreciation, it shows people you recognize their contribution and makes people more likely to offer their support again in the future.  As an added bonus, it will make you feel better to, and your relationship will be strengthened because you’ve shared this experience.

And on one last note—don’t forget to return the favor; you never know when you might need help again someday.

What are your tips on giving and receiving help in your career?

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