Asking a question is a simple act. Yet, asking someone for help often can be overwhelming. Many prefer to suffer alone rather than risk feeling uncomfortable. 

Besides simply needing assistance, not reaching out to others—whether for information, referrals, help with a personal challenge or advice about a demanding work project—can keep you from learning new things, achieving goals and making social connections. 

Five Myths

How many times has someone said to you, “All you have to do is ask,” but you never take him/her up on it? Why not? There are a number of myths about asking for help that stop us…

Myth #1: “I should be self-reliant.” 

Reality: It’s not always possible to find the best answers, solutions or directions on your own—no matter how hard you try to do it. Additional perspectives can be very helpful.

New way of thinking: If you can’t solve it on your own after 20 minutes, it’s time to reach out. Asking the right way even can lead to greater self-reliance in the end. Here’s how: Ask the person to show you how to do something rather than simply to do it for you. If you are taught how to change the settings on your smartphone, for example, next time you can do it on your own.

Myth #2: “I’ll look lazy.” 

Reality: Research shows that people do not think poorly of those who ask for help. On the contrary, they are more likely to think that you were smart and resourceful to come to them. 

New way of thinking: Ask for a hand—not a handout—and no one will think you are lazy. Make sure your requests are meaningful and specific. Example: Say, “I’m moving on Tuesday and plan to pack up all my kitchenware this weekend. Would you be free to help me for a few hours? I’ll order in lunch for us.”

Myth #3:I don’t know anyone who can help me.” 

Reality: You are likely underestimating the abilities of others to help. Even if the people you know don’t have the answer, chances are good that one of them knows another person who does.

New way of thinking: You won’t know until you ask whether someone is in a position to help you. You can begin by acknowledging that a wider net may need to be cast. Say, “I’m not sure if you can help me with this, but…”

Myth #4: “People don’t want to be bothered.” 

Reality: Studies show that people actually want to help each other and will help even strangers. The truth is they have no problem giving if they can—asking is what’s ­difficult. 

New way of thinking: Reach out politely and sensitively. Be aware of the timing of the ask. Early in the evening may be better than calling during work hours if you’re tapping someone who has a demanding job. Don’t waste his time with a meandering or unclear ask. Clarify your goals to yourself first so that you can articulate them clearly. Here are some phrases that make asking easier…

“I’m facing a challenge doing ______ and I would love your help on ______.”

“One of my greatest hopes is to ______ and what I really need to help me achieve that is ______.” 

“I’m currently working on ______ and could use help on ______.”

Myth #5: “I’ll be indebted.” 

Reality: Most people are generous and aren’t expecting anything in return. 

New way of thinking: The only thing you really owe someone after an ask is a thank you. Express gratitude and appreciation for the advice, help or information. Then close the giving-and-receiving loop by letting him know how you acted on his advice or recommendation. Later, you can pay it forward by giving help to someone else—that’s how the practice is spread.

How to Ask Successfully

Use the “SMART” approach commonly used in business and goal setting. But in this case, SMART stands for…

Specific—the more clear your request, the easier it is for people to tap into what they know and see if they have the answer for you.

Meaningful—when people understand why the ask is important to you, they’re more motivated to respond.

Action-oriented—describe the action, step or resource you need to get to your goal, not just the goal itself.

Realistic—what you’re asking for should be within a reasonable realm of possibility. Example: You can’t ask for a part in a movie…but you can ask for an introduction to a talent agent. 

Time-bound—share your deadline. Knowing it helps people figure out whether they can help you and motivates them to respond in a timely ­manner.

What If They Say “No”?

There’s always the possibility that you’ll get a “no.” But don’t take it as a personal rejection—he simply may not have the resources you need or the time to give them. There even may be an explanation in the “no” that can help you rephrase the ask and try again. 

Expand Your Network

Most people have an inner circle of go-to folks that they can call with questions. To expand your network, reach out to…

People you haven’t spoken to in ages. The closer you are to someone, the more your knowledge and networks overlap—meaning that there’s less chance he’ll know something or somebody you don’t. Instead, try reaching out to “dormant” connections—such as old college friends and long-lost second cousins—because their networks now are likely very different from yours. To soften a request that seems to come out of the blue, say something like, “I know it has been ages, but I thought of you recently when I ______ .” 

People in online groups. There are forums and Facebook groups for almost everyone, from pickleball players to ­pescatarians. These are good places to ask questions of like-minded people in the know. Similarly, if you or a loved one is dealing with a serious health condition and looking for coping techniques, now might be the time to connect with an online support group. 

Connections on LinkedIn. With ­LinkedIn, you can reach a large network of people in your field. Make sure your profile is up-to-date and complete. Search for people in your industry. Reach out to the ones you think can help by using the messaging function that allows you to have private conversations with them.