A social psychologist explains how to ask for help without making it weird

We all need a lift every once in a while. There is no reason it has to be weird.
We all need a lift every once in a while. There is no reason it has to be weird.
Image: AP Photo/Lionel Cironnea
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One of the most common misconceptions about giving is that, if you are doing it right, it’s entirely about the other person. That giving is not supposed to be about you. But this is nonsense. The choice to help another person is often, if not always, at least in part about how you see yourself and how helping will make you feel. And this is a good thing, because the benefits of helping to the helper provide a powerful source of motivation.

That said, there are some specific things you can say while asking for help that can really backfire.

Overdoing it on empathy

Empathy is a powerful motivator of helping. It is elicited when we perceive someone or something in need, when we value their welfare, and most importantly, when we take their perspective—imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes. This in essence creates an at least temporary sense of shared collective reciprocity (the sense that we’ll help someone because we share something in common with them).

In the right amounts, eliciting empathy can be a very effective way to obtain support. Until you take it too far, that is. Because “I feel your pain” stops working the moment the pain becomes too great. Then the person from whom you are trying to elicit empathy is quite likely to shut down entirely and try to get away from you as soon as possible, probably without helping at all.

Apologizing profusely

Have you ever had the (often very uncomfortable) experience of being showered with apologies while hearing a request for help? “I’m so sorry to ask you for this, Heidi, but I could really use your help with this assignment. It’s terrible that I have to ask. I really should be able to do it myself, and I know you are so busy. I just really hate myself for asking.” Ugh.

Getting a request like this feels awful. Of course you, like me, would probably say yes to it, in no small part just to get it over with. But this would fall firmly into the controlled helping category—I’m doing this because I have to, not because I want to.

It’s understood, implicitly, that people who are on the same team—people who share a sense of relational or collective reciprocity—will lean on one another from time to time for support. And that, naturally, this support will be reciprocated. Apologies that accompany a request for help subtly imply that we must not be on the same team; otherwise, why would you be apologizing? In this sense, apologizing actually undermines our shared in-group identity, increasing the gap between us and severing our feelings of connectedness.

Instead, make a request and offer appreciation when someone helps you. That’s much more satisfying for everyone, all around.

Using disclaimers

Often, those seeking help are so busy trying to establish that they are not personally weak or greedy that they turn the focus away from the helper and onto themselves. They say things like, “I’m not normally the type that asks for help . . .” or “I wouldn’t ask you if I had a choice . . .” or even “I hate having to ask you for this . . .”

The impulse is understandable. Asking for help is uncomfortable. The people we’re asking to lend us a hand might feel imposed upon. But using disclaimers like these is the wrong way to make it better. I can’t get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping you if I know that you hated having to ask me, and that you appear to be miserable about the whole thing.

Emphasizing how much the other person will love helping

“You’re going to love it! It will be so much fun!” One of my collaborators has a lifelong friend who has a habit of phrasing her requests for help this way.

“Any chance you could help me repaint the living room this weekend? We can totally drink beers and catch up! Girl time!” she might say. Or, “Hey, could you pick me up at the auto mechanic? I haven’t seen you in ages! Road trip!”

It’s a testament to the strength of their friendship that it survives this kind of request for help.

Don’t ever try to explicitly convince someone else that they will find helping you rewarding. It’s true that helping makes people happy, but reminding people of this generally drains the joy out of helping. First, it reeks of manipulation and control, undermining the helper’s sense of autonomy. Second, it’s presumptive as all hell. Don’t tell me about how I’m going to feel, you big jerk. That’s for me to decide.

Portraying the help you need as a tiny, insignificant favor

Because asking for help makes us so uncomfortable, and because we really do expect that people will say no, a common tactic is to portray the help we need as a small, piddling, almost invisible, negligible really, barely there, little favor. We might emphasize the overall lack of inconvenience helping us will cause, as in, “Could you drop these contracts off at the client’s? It’s practically on your way home.” Or we might highlight how little time it will take the helper to help us: “Would you add these updates to the database? It probably won’t take you more than five minutes.” The thing is, by minimizing our request, we also minimize the helper’s help and thus minimize any warm feelings the act of helping us might have generated.

Reminding people that they owe you one

“Remember when I took over that really tough client of yours?”

Because asking for help makes us feel weak and icky, we might sometimes be tempted to remind the people we’re asking how we’ve helped them in the past. This, too, is fraught with awkwardness.

The bottom line on reciprocity is this: if you have to remind someone that they owe you one, chances are they don’t feel as if they do. Reminding them that they owe you a favor both makes the other person feel as if you’re trying to control them (which, let’s be honest, you kind of are) and elicits what Adam Grant calls “matching” behavior—it’s not particularly generous, and it doesn’t create good feeling. It’s like going out for pizza with a friend, only to be told you should pay more since you ate two extra slices.

It makes the other person feel as if you’re keeping a scorecard, and that kind of scorekeeping is fundamentally bad for relationships.

Talking about how much their help will benefit you

You weren’t raised in a barn (probably). You know you need to express gratitude and appreciation for other people’s help. And yet people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: they focus on how they feel—how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help—rather than focusing on the benefactor.

Researchers Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, and Nicole Hilaire at the University of North Carolina distinguished between two types of gratitude expressions: other-praising, which involves acknowledging and validating the character or abilities of the giver (i.e., their positive identity); and self-benefit, which describes how the receiver is better off for having been given help. In one of their studies, they observed couples expressing gratitude to one another for something their partner had recently done for them. Their expressions were then coded for the extent to which they were other-praising or focused on self-benefit. Examples of their expressions included:

Other-praising: “It shows how responsible you are . . . ” “You go out of your way . . .” “I feel like you’re really good at that.”

Self-benefit: “It let me relax.” “It gave me bragging rights at work.” “It makes me happy.”

Finally, benefactors rated how responsive they felt the gratitude giver had been, how happy they felt, and how loving they felt toward their partner. The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving, but self-benefit gratitude was not.

Any weird request can be made in a non-weird way

There are really three ways of asking people for help that avoid making them feel controlled and that let them experience the natural high of helping. These three reinforcements create the desire to want to help another; you can use them in specific requests for help, and you can learn to emphasize them to create a culture of helpfulness.

The first reinforcement is what psychologists call a strong sense of in-group. In other words, the belief that the person in need is on your team—a part of a group that is important to you. This goes beyond mere collective reciprocity; we help people from our in-group because we care about what happens to the in-group. Because our own happiness and well-being are affected by the group’s happiness and well-being. Helping to create (or to highlight) the in-group status of a person in need reliably leads to a genuine desire to help.

The second reinforcer is the opportunity for positive identity. In other words, when helping you makes me feel good about me. Particularly when it allows me to see myself as possessing a positive attribute or playing an admired role. For example, people help more when they reflect on why it’s important to them to “be a benefactor to others.” When a positive identity—like being a benefactor—is made salient, people are more likely to act in accordance with it.

The last reinforcer—and the most powerful one of the three—is the opportunity to see one’s own effectiveness. In other words, people want to see or know the impact of the help they have given or will give. They want to see it land. This is actually not an ego thing. It’s what some psychologists have argued is the fundamental human motivation: to feel effective. To know that your actions create the results you intended. To, in essence, shape the world around you. In the absence of feedback—when we have no idea what the consequences of our actions have been—motivation takes a nosedive. And that is particularly true when it comes to helping.

These three reinforcements determine whether or not the desire to help you will arise intrinsically in your helper. Without them, they might still help you, but the benefits of that help will be yours alone. The help you receive will be more limited, and over time, the relationship you have with the helper may suffer.

Often, the potential for these reinforcers is already there—the in-group status, the potential for positive identity, a way for them to see their help land. But then we ruin it by saying the wrong thing when making a request or being thoughtless about the follow-up.

This article was adapted from the book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.