According to a groundbreaking fMRI study of social exclusion, rejection activates the same regions in the brain as physical pain.
Could that have something to do with people’s reluctance to request assistance in the workplace?
That’s one of the questions we’re going to answer in this article.
But, before we discuss what makes asking for help at work so difficult and how we can make it easier for everyone involved, let’s learn how to ask for help professionally and politely.
- The best way to ask for advice or support in a professional setting is by making sure your request is SMART, i.e. specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound.
- Making a habit of helping others will also contribute to making your organization one where asking for help is encouraged.
- Even though there are many societal and psychological barriers to asking for help, the benefits of doing so outweigh any potential downsides.
- So, create an environment that appreciates the self-awareness necessary to understand when you need help — and start by assisting others.
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If you want to know how to ask for help politely in a message or an email, there are several tips you should keep in mind.
Namely, you can try to:
- Inspire reciprocity by helping others first,
- Clarify what you want to ask,
- Make your request for help SMART,
- Find the right person to ask,
- Consider the tone of your message,
- Express your gratitude, and
- Create a workplace culture where asking for help is encouraged.
Having said that, let’s see what these tips look like in practice.
According to the authors of a 2021 paper on the benefits of being helpful, there are 2 potential benefits to lending a helping hand to your fellow team members:
#1: Inspiring indirect reciprocity in those who observed your actions.
Let’s say Nick saw Eve helping her coworker finish their assignment. Going forward, Nick might be more inclined to help Eve because he perceives her as being selfless.
#2: Gaining a reputation for being helpful.
In other words, Nick might tell others around the office about Eve’s selflessness, thereby increasing her social capital.
So, if you’re helping others, you can expect the help to be reciprocated.
Moreover, being helpful to others may allow you to feel more deserving of their help and, therefore, be more willing to ask for it.
To demonstrate this, let’s imagine the response a perpetual helper might receive when asking for help professionally via the business communication platform, Pumble:
As we have established, when you’re more open to providing assistance, you’re much more likely to ask for help yourself.
Still, you can make the process even easier by making sure you know exactly what kind of help you need.
Only when you formulate your need clearly can you be certain who you need to ask for help and what exactly you need them to do.
So, think hard about your problem and articulate your request for help well.
Write down what information you lack and what your goal is.
One of the experts we’ve contacted on this matter, HR Specialist Faye Casement, agrees with this approach:
“Think about what you need help with and be specific in your request. This makes it easier for the others to understand how they can assist and reduces the chance of frustration on both sides.”
You’ve probably heard of SMART goals, but now we’re going one step further.
If you want to know how to ask for help politely but professionally, try making your requests SMART, i.e. specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound.
At least, that’s what the book All You Have to Do Is Ask advises.
According to the author of the book, sociologist Wayne E. Baker, a well-formulated request for help should be SMART:
- Specific — Don’t beat around the bush, clearly state what it is you need help with. When you’re specific, it’s much more likely you’ll get help. After all, people need details to gauge whether they can help you or not.
- Meaningful — Explain to your coworkers why the request is important to you, even if you think that it’s self-evident (it rarely is, to be honest).
- Action-oriented — State what exactly needs to be done. In other words, don’t be vague — after all, your request for help is not the same as your goal. Your request should be a call to action, that would ultimately lead you to your goal.
- Realistic — Your request should be within the realm of possibility.
- Time-bound — You need a due date. So, clearly state when you need help and what is your deadline.
If you formulate your requests with these points in mind, people will be more likely to help you.
Having said that, let’s see an example of this method in action.
In our example, Anne covered all the points from the SMART criteria.
She specifically stated her problem, explained why she was in a rush, and what needed to be done, and told Eve what her deadline was.
Thanks to all that, the chances that Eve will help her are quite high.
After you formulate your request for help following the SMART guidelines, you need to find the right target for it.
Mind you, you might have to ask a few people before you find the right helper.
For example, if you need help with a task at work, it’s only natural to ask the person on your team you’re closest to.
But, what if they also lack the expertise or experience you need?
Well, in that case, you shouldn’t be surprised if they decline your request for help.
So, when in doubt, you should ask someone who may have the skills you need, like a senior coworker or a mentor.
Even if they can’t help you, for whatever reason, they should still be able to point you in the right direction.
Of course, this whole process will be much easier if you already know who the best person to ask for help is.
Now that you’ve found the right person for the task, all you have to do is ask. Easy enough, right?
But, how do you politely ask for assistance? Well, that’s the tricky part.
If you want to improve your chances of getting a positive response, you should:
- Be careful not to sound too demanding — If you don’t provide enough context in your request for help, it might seem like you think the other person is obliged to help you.
- Be kind and humble — To ensure the other person empathizes with you, feel free to show your vulnerability. Admit that you’ve tried to do something but failed, and that’s why you need help.
- Be respectful and show trust — You have to demonstrate a willingness to learn from the person you’ve addressed for help. Show that you trust and respect them.
- Be considerate of timing — Make sure you don’t ask for help at the last minute. Check with the other person when it would be a good time to talk.
Let’s take a look at an example from the team communication app Pumble.
Jim, a content writer, is asking his mentor Sabrina for help with the text he’s working on.
First, Jim checked if Sabrina had time to talk.
After Sabrina gave the go-ahead, Jim explained his problem and asked for help. He has shown his vulnerability and concern.
Thankfully, Sabrina agreed to help and assured Jim that everything was going to be fine.
💡 PUMBLE PRO TIP
If you struggle with asking questions in a professional environment, check out our guide to asking better questions:
Practicing gratitude is a crucial part of learning how to ask for help politely.
Whether a person is able to help you or not, you need to at least thank them for listening to your request for help.
However, thanking someone you work with requires just as much forethought as asking for help in a message or an email.
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you formulate the perfect response:
- Pinpoint exactly what you’re grateful for — Acknowledge the other person’s exact contribution by saying something like, “Thank you for helping me get that spreadsheet in order.” Alternatively, if they weren’t able to provide their assistance, you can still thank them by saying, “Oh, thank you for hearing me out anyway!” or “Thank you for letting me know who I can contact about this issue.”
- Choose the right medium to give thanks — Most of the time, you should be able to express your gratitude verbally, or over direct messaging or email. However, if you asked for a really big favor, you might want to consider preparing a gift and a handwritten note instead.
- Be mindful of the level of formality you need to employ — When a coworker you’re close with helps out, feel free to express your appreciation in whichever way you both prefer. However, if you want to thank a boss or even an employee, you might want to opt for more formal language.
- Be prompt when expressing your gratitude — Ideally, you should thank the person who helped you immediately upon receiving their help. Additionally, you should also keep your message short, as with any other form of professional communication.
In any case, expressing your gratitude should make the other person more inclined to provide their assistance in the future.
Ultimately, becoming someone who is willing to assist others and who knows how to ask for help politely in a message or an email is bound to rub off on other people at work.
However, if you want to take an even more active role in fostering a positive work environment that encourages people to ask for help when they need it, here are some other steps you can take:
- Identify the barriers to asking for help — First, you should take a look at your organizational communication and identify the obstacles to asking for help. Are those who seek help viewed as incapable or weak? Are leaders giving the impression that they never need any help? Is there a lack of trust among the team members? Once you identify the barriers, you’ll be able to deal with them.
- Reinforce your strengths — Understand which actions encourage your coworkers to ask for help, strengthen them, and apply them to all departments.
- Model asking for help — When employees see that their leaders don’t refrain from asking for advice or help, they are more likely to follow their lead. Namely, leaders should not be afraid to show they are not superhuman and that they also require assistance from others.
- Reward asking for help — Don’t forget to recognize employees who seek help and try to reward them somehow. You can even use formal recognition programs to publicly praise those employees who asked others for assistance. Make sure you’re also rewarding and fostering collaborative efforts which result from asking for help.
Now that we’ve given you some concrete advice, we should provide you with some useful phrases to help you become a better communicator in situations when you need to request assistance — so let’s see what these phrases are.
If you’ve never had to ask for help in a professional environment, you may not be aware that there are certain phrases you can use to accomplish your goal.
In fact, there are many different ways to ask for help, depending on the level of formality you want to use and the urgency of your situation.
For example, you might say:
- “Could you please do me a favor?”
- “Can you give me a hand with this?”
- “Would it be too much trouble for you to…”
- “I could do with some help, please.”
- “Could you spare me a few minutes of your time, please?”
If you ever find yourself in a bind at work, you can use any of these phrases to ask for help.
However, if you still don’t understand how to ask someone for help via message or email using only these phrases, check out the rest of the examples we’ve compiled below.
💡 PUMBLE PRO TIP
If you want to discover more useful phrases for different communication situations at the workplace, check out our following texts:
“Could / Would you do me a favor?” — for asking for help from people you know well
“Hey, Jenna, I’m glad I ran into you. Could you do me a favor and check the due date for the Johnson project?”
“Could I ask / bother you / trouble you…” — a more polite way of asking for a quick favor
“Ms. Perez, could I trouble you to book a hotel for our business trip?”
“Can you give me a hand with this?” — for asking for help from people you know well
“Robert, can you give me a hand with these boxes I need to take to the warehouse?”
“Lend me a hand with this, will you?” — a little more polite and old-fashioned direct request for help
“I need to move this table and make room for one more chair. Lend me a hand, will you?”
“Could you help me for a second?” — a more polite way of asking for a quick favor
“Mr. Scott, I’m glad you’re here. Could you help me for a second?”
“Can I ask a favor?” — a general way of introducing a request for help
“Can I ask a favor? I need someone to log into my computer at the office and upload a file to my cloud storage so I can work on it at home.”
“Please, could I ask you for some advice?” — a direct request for help
“Kim, you’ve been in this company much longer than I. I am having trouble with some clients. Please, could I ask you for some advice?”
“I could really use some help if you have a moment.” — a direct request for help that takes into account the helper’s time
“I’ve been feeling somewhat overwhelmed with the scope of my responsibilities. I could really use your help on this task if you have a moment.”
“Would you mind giving me a hand?” — a semi-formal way to request assistance
“Hey Jackson. Would you mind giving me a hand with this report, if you’re not too busy?”
“I wonder if you could help me with this?” — polite and can be used with people you don’t know very well
“I’m not sure if you’re the right person to ask, but I appreciate your time. I wonder if you could help me with this document. I heard you know a lot about this topic.”
“I would be most grateful if you could give me some help.” — a formal, polite, and direct way of asking for help
“Mr. Brown, I am afraid I don’t have enough information on this case. I would be most grateful if you could give me some help.”
“Would it be too much trouble for you to…” — a polite and direct request for help
“Ms. Peterson, would it be too much trouble for you to give me an estimate on the delivery time frame?”
“I could do with some help, please.” — a quite direct way of asking for help, which shows that you’re in dire need of assistance
“Hello, everybody! I’m new in the company and I could do with some help, please!”
“I can’t manage / I’m in over my head. Can you help?” — when you are desperate for help
“Stephen, I have too much work to do, with the holidays coming up. I can’t manage everything. Can you help me?”
“I need some assistance, please.” — a direct request for help, when we don’t expect the answer to be “No”
“I think I need some assistance with this problem on my computer, please.”
“I know you’re busy but could you spare me a few minutes of your time, please?” — we respect that the other person is busy and we need them for just a few minutes
“Jenny, this report is almost finished, but I’m horrible at spreadsheets. I know you’re busy but could you spare me a few minutes of your time, please? I need you to look at one chart — I know you are good with spreadsheets.”
Even though we all need some help from time to time, many people still hesitate to ask for it.
Why is that?
In his book All You Have to Do Is Ask, sociologist Wayne E. Baker identified 8 main barriers to asking for help:
- We are too self-reliant.
- We think others are unwilling or unable to help us.
- The systems, procedures, or structure of our organization get in our way.
- We perceive there to be social costs of seeking help. In other words, we believe that others will see us as weak, lazy, or incapable of doing our job if we ask for help.
- We don’t know what to request or how to request it.
- Our workplace culture lacks psychological safety.
- We worry we haven’t earned the privilege of asking for help.
- We fear seeming selfish.
We’ve already addressed some of these problems in our guide to asking for help professionally.
However, we also found it helpful to consider the advice of Daniel Galletta, a Psychologist and the Founder of Slide Science, who explained that most of these preconceived notions come from within:
“You should acknowledge that judgment for asking for help comes from within, not from others. In addition, instead of seeing questions as a sign of stupidity or inexperience, you should reframe them as a core competency. In other words, it’s an expectation of your role that you do ask questions in order to become a subject matter expert in your domain and excel at your job.”
Science has long acknowledged the many social and psychological benefits of knowing how to ask someone for help.
Let’s talk about what those benefits are.
Ultimately, asking for help is nothing to be frightened of.
Indeed, being able to sidestep the barriers to requesting help and freely ask for advice and assistance comes with many benefits.
Namely, asking for help:
- Fosters a collaborative work environment,
- Improves productivity,
- Creates bonding opportunities, and
- Gives you the opportunity to develop and learn.
So, let’s see how these benefits play out in a professional environment.
When you ask for advice from your coworkers, it helps you build trust with your team, even when working remotely.
In fact, both providing and receiving assistance are great ways to improve collaboration and ensure the success of group endeavors.
In our search for answers, we contacted Irene McConnell, a Career Coach, Hiring Manager, MD of Arielle Executive, and an Official Member of Forbes Coaches Council, who shared her opinion with us:
“First and foremost, asking for help fosters a collaborative work environment. Every employee has their own skillset, and it’s not fair to expect everyone to do everything by themselves. So, when you ask for help at work, you learn new things. This process helps build goodwill between coworkers and reinforces the belief that everyone is working toward the same goals.”
So, in a way, asking for help is actually an integral component of a collaborative culture at work.
As we have established, asking for help fosters collaboration at work. This, in turn, improves productivity.
When you don’t hesitate to ask for help, you and your coworkers work together, as one, towards the solution of the problem.
Aside from that, if you ask your coworkers for help, it shows them that you recognize your limitations.
In other words, you are self-aware — which is a trait necessary for collaboration.
As a result, you will be able to build a stronger workflow within the team, as each team member comes to understand their strengths and limitations through helping and receiving help.
In her book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, social psychologist Heidi Grant claims that asking for help tends to bring out the best in people:
“There is no better way to give someone the opportunity to feel good about themselves than to ask them to help you. It brings out the best — and the best feelings — in all of us.”— Heidi Grant
By asking your coworkers for help, you create opportunities for them to share their talents, empowering them to shine.
That allows you to learn about your coworkers’ strengths and bond with them.
If you’re still not convinced and are a stickler for science, here’s one fact for you.
Namely, you might be interested to hear that when we ask others for help, both we and the other party release oxytocin, a powerful hormone that stimulates bonding.
Aside from allowing other people to shine when you ask them for help, by doing so, you’re admitting that you’re imperfect, just like everyone else.
This helps others relate to you and allows you to grow, which leads us to our next benefit.
Asking for help means getting out of your comfort zone and admitting that you can’t do everything by yourself.
And, as it happens, getting out of your comfort zone is essential if you want to experience growth in any aspect of your life.
When you ask your coworker for help, you are stepping into unknown territory, and are well on your way to learning something new and developing your skills or broadening your knowledge.
So, any discomfort you might experience when asking for help is a small price to pay for an opportunity to develop and learn.
Actually, that is a sure-fire way to develop a growth mindset — a common denominator of successful people.
Namely, a growth mindset allows you to embrace challenges and develop your abilities through dedication and hard work, as both your intelligence and talents can grow.
When asking for help, it’s important to know who to ask and how.
With Pumble, a team communication app, you’ll be able to find the person who can help you, send them a direct or a group message, and receive a quick reply.
And, since Pumble also allows you to share files with your coworkers, you’ll also be able to share any necessary documentation you might need help with.
But what happens if DMs and group messages simply don’t cut it? Well, then just jump on an audio or a video call!
Easily communicate and collaborate with your team, and ask for (or offer) help to anyone in your organization — with Pumble.