The Lost Art of Asking for Help

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word “mayday,” the international distress call used by ships and aircraft? In the preface to her new book Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), M. Nora Klaver, a Chicago-based master coach, explains: “It comes from the French m’aidez (pronounced much like the English word mayday) and literally translates to ‘help me.’” In everyday life, Klaver writes, the term is sometimes used by people who have reached a personal threshold of panic or despair.

Do you resist asking for help—until it’s your last resort? You’re not alone. In her book, Klaver lists some of the reasons why people often delay a valid request for help until they have reached the point of desperation. She writes:

  • We may ask too late because we don’t recognize early enough that we actually have a need to be filled.
  • We may not see the whole picture, so the help we ask for satisfied only part of our need.
  • We may ask the wrong person or people to help us with our request.
  • Our requests may be so unclear that others may not understand that we need help at all.
  • Help may come, but because we weren’t clear enough in our requests, it’s the wrong help.
  • We may demand assistance rather than politely ask for it.
  • We may resort to blackmail, bribery, or even coercion to get our needs met.
  • We may inadvertently solicit pity instead of help.
  • Our bodies may betray our fears and subtly send the message that we are too far gone to be helped.
  • We may ask for help too often without concern for our friends, family, and coworkers. Compassion fatigue becomes a real possibility for them.
  • We may simply frighten ourselves into never asking.

The good news is that you can learn to ask for help, says Klaver. In fact, it can be a fairly simple act. But first, you’ve got to debunk some common cultural myths. For example:

Myth: Asking for help makes you look weak or needy.
Reality: There’s no shame in turning to others in true times of need. In fact,
it’s a sign of strength.

Myth: Asking for help signals incompetence—especially at work.
Reality: Seeking help at work shows others that you want to do the job
right—and to develop and learn.

Myth: Asking for help can harm relationships.
Reality: Healthy relationships are about give and take—not just give.

Myth: Asking for help puts others in an awkward position.
Reality: It’s human nature to offer help when you see someone in need—and it’s no different when others see you in need.

Myth: Asking for help might lead to rejection.
Reality: Even a “no” response offers the opportunity to learn more about yourself—and your relationships.

Myth: Asking for help means the job might not get done right.
Reality: Refusing to ask for fear of losing control maintains the status quo. Let go and give your helpmate a chance to shine.

Myth: Asking for help means you’ll have to return the favor.
Reality: Help freely given comes with no strings attached—other than a simple and sincere thank-you.

Myth: Asking for help just isn’t the American way.
Reality: Independence and self-sufficiency are admirable qualities that lead to success. Still, all great enterprises—including our nation—were built on support, teamwork, and collaboration.

The Mayday! Process

To make sure your mayday signals are transmitted with both strength and clarity, Klaver recommends a seven-step approach:

  1. Name the need. Slow down and ask yourself some questions so that you can clarify exactly what you need. Don’t become attached to your first guess for resolving the situation.
  2. Give yourself a break. You will never be able to freely ask for help unless you truly believe you deserve it.
  3. Take a leap. You must have the self-assurance necessary to take a leap of faith toward the help you seek.
  4. Ask! This is the step where you actually make the request. Expand your list of helpmates; generate as many names of potential helpers as you can—even those who may say no.
  5. Be grateful. Gratitude is an important part of the process. It allows you to remain gracious and open regardless of the answer to your request.
  6. Listen differently. Listen not just to the words, but to the underlying emotional messages embedded in the response to your request.
  7. Say thanks. The final step is to say thank-you—whether your helpmate agrees to help you or not. Use the “three thanks” rule by expressing your gratitude three times: when the agreement is struck; when the need has been met, and when you next see your helper.

Klaver offers encouragement and hope even to those who are most loath to ask for help. She writes: “Like any skill, practice is required. The more often you ask, the more comfortable you will become. With time, mis-communications will be reduced, anxiety will lessen, and your words will become more eloquent.”

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