Learn the power of making requests.

Having the freedom to ask for help builds a culture of collaboration. Yet asking for help is often an issue that leaders, managers, or anyone who runs their own business struggles with.

Why? In my experience as a coach, I have observed a few common culprits — sometimes it’s an undistinguished concern for being viewed as ‘weak;’ sometimes a concern for ‘burdening’ others or an unwillingness to accrue social debts or; or even more commonly, a need for self-reliance — which most obviously limits one’s ability to seek assistance.

Personally, I struggle with the third situation the most, given my experience as a 5th child which resulted in a constant need to prove myself. If you are anything like me, you understand the automatic pull of needing to demonstrate your competence — but are you also aware of how this can get in the way of your effectiveness?

So, how do we learn to better recognise the limited thinking or beliefs that impede us from asking for help, and expand our repertoire so we can collaborate and function more effectively in our work and lives?

For those who are challenged by asking for help, there are ways to level-up in this area. One is by doing the work to expose the mechanisms that actually get in the way, the other is by developing the art of making requests (see the five basic principles below).

First, take a look in the mirror (my backstory about asking for help)

With the help of my own coach years ago, I discovered a limiting pattern — one she framed as having a ‘bi-polar relationship with asking for help.’ When she pointed this out, I took the time to look closely at my behavioural patterns around the topic — not just conceptually, but my real life experience.

I could see that I had both useful and not-so-useful ways of operating around seeking assistance. It was also apparent that being well-versed in asking for help in some ways had a compensatory effect, masking ways in which I got in my own way at other times. When I could see more clearly what was going on, it gave me an opening for change.

I’ve always been known as someone who can make requests easily, including bold ones. However, others around me, family members particularly, would often vacillate between admiring this ability, and finding it somewhat cringe-worthy. My boldness would both take them out of their comfort zone, and it also meant I sometimes overstepped a boundary.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are times I become a bit of a lone ranger in my work or projects, principally because I want things done ‘my way,’ and can at times lack confidence in other people’s competence.

Through examining the impact my behaviours have had on others, seeing both the costs and benefits in my ways of operating, I have become more conscious in my actions and created more balance. This shift has allowed me to transcend barriers and create an empowered approach to ‘request making’ that serves me to this day.

We all have ways of operating that are hidden from our view! It can be nearly impossible sometimes to catch a glimpse of some ingrained behaviours without a ‘mirror’ — someone who can help point out ways our speech and actions impede our success.

Having someone well-trained to help you discover your edges can be a valuable support when behaviour change is needed or wanted.

Reframing: Asking for help vs. making requests

Recognising from my childhood story that I was programmed to cope and take care of myself was a first step. It gave me a choice. Once you see your automatic patterns, you often have a greater ability to choose whether to operate from them, or not.

If asking for help is a challenge for you, and you understand why, one baby step you can take is by reframing ‘asking for help’ into ‘making requests’ — it’s a simple mindset shift you can play with.

While I could often be bold in making requests, on the one hand, it didn’t mean I was always successful. I still needed to fine-tune how I made requests to shift the impact I wanted to have as a coach and a leader, and more easily rally support when I needed it.

If you struggle to reach out for support, I recommend you grow your request-making skills. It can be very empowering, not only to allow for better collaboration, but also to enable others to contribute their skills more easily. In that spirit, here are some principles that may come in handy.

1. Set a good example — be willing to fulfil other people’s requests.

What made me free to make requests of others is that I didn’t ask anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself were the situation reversed. It’s crucial to establish being reliable and helpful yourself. People will want to assist you if they sense that you have no qualms about assisting others.

2. Create a context and identify a shared commitment.

Ensuring there’s a backdrop of shared commitment is often the best way to create collaboration. To set a context for support, it’s a good idea to identify how your goals may overlap with the person you are making a request of. Someone is much more likely to say yes to a request if they connect with how it serves something they are committed to — in other words that you are ‘playing on the same team’ for shared outcomes. Having genuine buy-in helps us avoid resentment, which can be a by-product of ‘arm twisting,’ or inauthentic support.

3. Leave room for NO.

People are much more likely to help if they are given the opportunity to respond in a way that is genuine, something they can actually fulfil on. There’s nothing less effective than a demand veiled as a request — where the only possible answer is YES. This does not set people up for success, nor does it call forth the best people have to offer. If someone answers a call for help, and they are truly keen to help, even if they are challenged by it, they will have the opportunity to grow themselves in giving support. It’s a real win-win.

4. Be specific about what you’re asking for.

Vague requests can be confusing and difficult. When you make a request, craft it in a way that’s purposeful, specific, achievable and time-bound, where possible. Don’t burden the person you’re asking with uncertainty — it’s less efficient and can lead to unsatisfactory results. When I make a request, I make sure I communicate my objective and the importance of accomplishing it. I also speak concisely, and try not to miss essential details.

5. Check your assumptions at the door.

The most common assumptions — that people are burdened by requests, don’t have time or are unwilling to help, or your goals are not important to them — often don’t prove to be true. Most people are actually eager to extend themselves, especially in their area of expertise, so take the time to examine your assumptions and set them aside, so you cultivate more opportunity for support.

If you put these principles to work, and learn to make powerful requests, it will call forth genuine collaboration, which has good energy. You may be surprised at how often people want to contribute and how success and effectiveness can be tied to that simple act of asking for help. Begin by setting the tone, norms, and practices in your own environment and see how others follow.