Opinion: How to ask for help

Credit: iStock: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

10 ways to make your requests more effective

Why do we hesitate to ask for help? Are we too proud? Do we think it shows weakness or lack of knowledge? Do we worry that the other person will say no? Or does it feel like we are asking for a favour and that feels a little transactional?

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Asking someone to introduce you to a person in their network, or approaching a colleague for advice, or reaching out to someone more senior for help on a business challenge makes most of us a little uncomfortable, but that’s what a network is for—support.

Here are 10 ways to make your request for help more effective.

1. Start by being a giver

If you have a reputation as someone who helps others, it’s easier to reach out when you need assistance. This doesn’t mean it has to be a reciprocal situation where you have done something for the person you are asking so therefore they won’t mind helping you. It feels more natural to ask if you already operate in a giver’s world.

2. Be succinct and clear

Avoid long-winded fuzzy requests like, “I was wondering if you had time to talk to me about a challenge I am having?” Get down to it: “Here’s my challenge (fill in the blank), and here’s what I am hoping you can help me with (fill in the blank).”

3. Tell them the potential outcomes you are looking for

This may not always be possible, but if the other person understands what your goal is, they can better estimate how long it’s going to take and if they can help you.

4. Let them know the timeline

Does this need immediate attention? Is it something that is going to take time to work through?

5. Do your homework first

If you are asking someone for a meeting to learn more about their company or future job opportunities or seeing if there is a need for your product, avoid asking questions you should already know the answers to—that’s what the Internet is for.

6. When you meet, take notes

Even if you have a photographic memory, take notes. It shows that what they are saying matters. They are really giving you two gifts—their sticky knowledge and their time. Demonstrate that you value them both.

7. React promptly

If you are asking someone to do you a favour regarding a business proposal, be ready to deliver it. If they make an introduction for you or give you a job lead, hop on it. That resumé should be burning a hole in your pocket!

8. Thank them thoughtfully

Figure out the appropriate way to thank them. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a telephone call. A handwritten card is always memorable, but if it’s an email, make it genuine and meaningful, not just thanks for contacting…. If another employee has done something for you, a $20 gift certificate from Starbucks or a box of famous Thierry macrons makes an impact way beyond the dollar value. 

9. Keep the helper in the loop

Let them know the outcome of their efforts. And keep them updated if good things continue to happen. If an introduction has turned into a long-term client, let that person know even if it’s something that has transpired over time.

10. Help back

A month or so ago we were conducting a workshop with a financial institution. A participant who was a very successful commercial banker had been sharing throughout the day how being a giver not a taker had provided stellar successes for him. The one thing he mentioned that was surprising to us (and to him) is that while he was always helping others, he often didn’t see the reciprocal happening. This is a good reminder: If someone helps you, be on the lookout to do the same for them. That’s full-circle helping.

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac are three of Canada’s top networking experts. They are principals of Shepa Learning Company, are keynote speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tipit’s always under 200 words.