Everyone needs help once in a while. But the simple question “Can you help me?” may cause a lot of stress and embarrassment. Why? Many of us want to look strong and capable, and asking for help often gets mistaken for a sign of weakness. Asking for help is a natural part of life, so why not learn how to do it better?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Take the Risk of Asking
- Step 2: Clarify What Kind of Help You Need
- Step 3: Be Thoughtful About Who to Ask
- Step 4: Be Thoughtful About How to Ask
- Step 5: Be Specific
- Step 6: “Can You Help Me?”
- Step 7: Give Help to Others
- Examples of How to Ask for Help in Any Situation
The following steps will unpack the process of asking for help. You’ll learn about why you should ask for help more often, and how to prepare yourself before you say a word. You’ll also see how the way you ask can vary in different situations.
Step 1: Take the Risk of Asking
People often don’t ask for help because they assume the person they ask might say “no.” The fear of rejection is strong, and nearly every human worries about this to some degree. Asking for help can be uncomfortable, and people want to avoid the embarrassment of rejection, so they say nothing.
But several research studies have shown that people often guess wrong about the people they want to ask. People generally like to see themselves as useful, and are often willing to take action when asked. That social pressure alone drives people to say, “how can I help,” even if they would hesitate for other reasons.
So go ahead, ask for help more often and see what happens.
Step 2: Clarify What Kind of Help You Need
Before you ask for help, clarify what you need. Knowing this can determine who you ask and what you need them to do. Think about your problem and decide what missing part matters the most.
Do you need to explain a big picture situation, or do you have a specific topic to discuss? Do you need to gather knowledge or complete a task? Write down what you need so you can say it clearly. Make sure your list is simple and accurate so it’s easier to get the right kind of help.
Step 3: Be Thoughtful About Who to Ask
Once you know what kind of help you need, consider who to ask. Keep in mind you may need to speak to a few different people before you get the help you need.
- Consider what kind of information you need. Do you need to speak to a professional? Or can a friend or family member help?
- If you aren’t sure who could help you, pick someone that may have some knowledge and start there.
- You may need to approach someone you’ve never met before to get help. If this is your best option, gather your courage and prepare to ask.
Step 4: Be Thoughtful About How to Ask
How you ask for help makes a big difference, so think about how you’d like someone to approach you. Use the following tips to improve your chances of getting a “yes”:
- Avoid making your request sound like a demand - A request without context can imply that the other person is obliged to do something for you.
- Appeal to them with kindness and humility - You want to promote empathy from the other person, so show your vulnerability in some way. Say that you can’t figure something out or that you tried something that didn’t work.
- Show trust and respect - Show a willingness to listen and learn from the other person. Your respectful behavior shows that you are open-minded and trusting.
- Be considerate of timing - If possible, avoid asking for help at the last minute or odd times of the day. Recognize that you may be interrupting them, then ask about a good time to talk.
Step 5: Be Specific
Use newsgathering questions to get more specific about what you need to ask.
- Who - Who needs help? Clarify if it’s only you or if others are involved.
- How - How will their actions help you? Explain what you have tried already and where you fall short.
- Why - Why did you choose them to help you? Mention their expertise, a referral, or your personal connection.
- Where - Where do you need to have help? Narrow down the part that you need help with, or a physical location if that applies.
- When - When do you need help? State a deadline, if you have one.
- What - What is your specific need? Spell out what you want in plain language.
Step 6: 'Can You Help Me?'
Ending your request with this question is another way to show your vulnerability. Most people want to be helpful, and a person is less likely to turn you away when you ask this question directly.
Even if the other person isn’t able to help, they are more likely to reply with kindness. They might suggest different ways of getting assistance or other people to ask.
Step 7: Give Help to Others
Make a habit of offering your time and talents to others. Not only can you understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin, but the process can seem less intimidating.
It also moves your mindset in a generous direction, which is good for all your social connections.
Examples of How to Ask for Help in Any Situation
How you ask for help can vary in different settings. These examples show what to focus on when you approach someone.
How to ask for help at work or school
Teamwork is essential in both work and school environments. Be respectful of timing, and emphasize the positives of helping you.
- “I’m not sure if you’re the right person to ask, but I appreciate your time. I need help creating this document, and I heard you know a lot about it.”
- “Hi, I’m in your English class and your Algebra class. If you can help me with this essay, we could go through our Algebra homework together.”
- “Jess, I have this report almost finished, but I’m terrible at spreadsheets. I know you do these all the time, so can I show you one chart? See what I could do better?”
How to ask a family member or friend for help
Because of your close relationship, friends and family are often willing to support you. Ask with the intent of giving help in return, and use your request as a chance to spend time together.
- “Could you help me move some furniture in my house this weekend? I’ll order a pizza, and we can watch the game together.”
- “I’ve been working extra shifts lately, and my house is a nightmare. Can you help me sort through some things in my storage room? Next time you clean out your garage, I’m there!”
- “I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and I haven’t planned anything for dinner. You can pick out dessert if you help me put a meal together.”
How to ask for help after a death or tragedy
If you need help when you’re grieving, ask friends and family. Your loved ones will want to pitch in but may not know where you need help the most. Talk to a close friend or family about cooking, social support, or getting a specific task done.
- “Mom, I just need to be alone today before the memorial service. Can you take a message if someone calls or stops over?”
- “Julie, I feel so frazzled and have so much to do after Dad died. Mom could use some meals delivered to the house. Can you take care of that? ”
- “We need help cleaning up the basement after it flooded. Could you come out one day next week so we can pull up the carpet?”
How to ask for help with your mental or physical health
It can feel uncomfortable to ask for help with physical or mental health issues, especially since it can feel like you don’t seem like you’re “visibly” sick. But needing support like this doesn’t make you a weak or less valuable person. Be specific with your needs and know that others care about your wellbeing.
- “I don’t feel like getting out of bed, but my doctor said I had to take a walk every day. Can you walk with me?”
- “I have to cut out a lot of things in my diet now, and you’re a lot better at cooking than I am. Want to come over this weekend and teach me a few easy recipes?”
- “I’m supposed to take it easy on my back now, but I have a lot of yard work to do this week. Can you help me get the yard trimmings up to the truck?”
How to ask for help with finances or money
If you ask anyone for money, offer your time and service in return. Be understanding if they decline, and help them brainstorm other ways to help you.
- “I’ve never done my taxes by myself, and I’m nervous about making a mistake. Can you go through it with me?”
- “I’m having trouble paying my bills right now. If you can loan me some money, I’ll help you around the house or do jobs for people in the neighborhood. Do you have some ideas?”
Asking for Help Means Being Grateful and Generous
We all need help sometimes, but asking for it can feel uncomfortable. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And it’s about more than just helping you get a task done. Helping people is an opportunity to share your gratitude and generosity with others. It’s worth it to muster your courage and ask, “Can you help me?”
- Baker, Wayne. “5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help.” Harvard Business Review, December 18, 2014, hbr.org/2014/12/5-ways-to-get-better-at-asking-for-help
- Flynn, Frances, and Lake, Vanessa, “‘If You Need Help, Just Ask’: Underestimating compliance with direct requests for help.” Graduate School of Stanford Business, 2008, www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/if-you-need-help-just-ask-underestimating-compliance-direct-requests