The Big Ask

Asking for help is as dreaded by many of us as public speaking. In fact, a social science experiment conducted in the ‘70’s revealed that the act of asking others for their seat on public transportation created physical symptoms akin to the flu: chills, nausea and a real NEED to sit down.  Our culture has promoted the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness and will be met with rejection.

If you live in a city where panhandling is common place, the thought of being seen as “desperate” is enough to drive one underground.  The reality is that we humans are programmed to be helpers.  We evolved by living communally and helping our “tribe” survive the elements.  We like to help others; we feel good about ourselves when we’re effective in this way.

Although reluctance to ask for help seems universal in our culture, men often have a more difficult time with this than women (think: asking for directions).  I recently had a woman “drag” her husband to meet me in an effort to get help with his draining job search.  I watched as she practically begged him to agree to career coaching.  He had been unemployed for many months and appeared to be in a rut, doing the same kind of searches with a tired-looking resume, leading to disappointing results. And yet, he continued along the same road without asking for directions.

On the other hand, I had a client whose mother paid for his career coaching sessions.  When I confessed that I was surprised he was willing to take his mother up on her generous offer, he disclosed that years in AA taught him to ask for and graciously receive help when he was stuck.  One of the basic premises of a 12-step program is that others can and do help you support a healthy lifestyle.


Before you run off asking strangers for their help, know that there are some guidelines for the big ask.  First and foremost: people don’t want to feel manipulated; they want to give freely.  From my own experience, I offer complementary 20-minute consultations as part of my coaching practice   I’m happy to talk to anyone who schedules such a consultation.  One time, a prospective client scheduled and completed a 20-minute consultation whereupon he requested another 20-minute free consultation.  I know when I’m being snookered and politely suggested he schedule a fee-based, one-hour appointment.

Lack of Clairvoyance

Although we’d all welcome offers to help when we’re in distress, most people are unaware of others’ need for help.  I’ve certainly noticed how oblivious others seem to be in public spaces.  What we sometimes interpret as lack of empathy, is often mere oblivion: folks absorbed in their own “stories” or their personal devices. The simple truth is people aren’t mind readers. Most of us assume that if someone needs help, they will ask for help.  Another truth is that unsolicited offers to help can sometimes be unwelcomed.

Be Direct

Rather than waiting for someone to read your mind, the best way to get the help you want is to ask directly and to be specific. Make sure your ask is reasonable and is respectful of other’s time and energy.  If, for example, you’re asking for advice, be sure you ask a person who is capable of giving advice and that the time required to address your concerns is moderate.  Just the other day, a former client asked if she could talk to me for 15 minutes.  Her request was direct, specific and easy for me to honor.

Avoid Apologies, Disclaimers and Justifications

Years ago, I received a letter from a family member asking for money for a specific purchase.  In the letter, the relative justified the ask by suggesting how good I would feel to contribute to this fund. Suggesting how someone might emotionally benefit from helping is presumptuous, at best.

Don’t minimize the request or imply that you are owed a favor.  What most of us want to believe when helping someone is that we’ve been effective.  When expressing gratitude for any help received, then, be sure to indicate how the help made a difference in your life.  I can still remember being in the middle of a business presentation when one of the executives started grilling me about the details of my presentation.  I became quite flustered and my papers dropped on the floor.  A colleague (who became my BFF) retrieved the papers and put them in the proper order before returning them to me.  Although I didn’t ask for help, her kindness helped me regain my composure and finish my presentation. That simple act of kindness made a difference by helping preserve my self-esteem.

The Gift of Helping

Before I moved from my Atlanta home, I hired a young man to provide regular landscaping services.  He confided in me that he had once been homeless and spent years asking for handouts on the streets.  For several years, he spent the money he received on alcohol and drugs until one day he didn’t; he was ready to turn his life around.  All the money he received from that point forward went toward getting him on his feet. His message to me was that you never know when your help will save someone’s life

Not only can you make a difference in someone’s life by helping, you can also allow others to feel effective by helping you. 

“For it is in giving that we receive.”

St. Frances of Assisi