How do you ask for help?

Do you go out of your way to make it easy for the other person to help you? Or do you fire off questions with minimal effort?

I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m seen as an expert in my field, which means I frequently get asked for help or advice. Given that I love to share what I’ve learned, this is great - when I know it will be taken to heart and make a difference.

But some requests just don’t feel good to receive. Usually these are the tell-me-what-I-should-do or please-solve-this-problem-for-me variety.

How not to reach out for help

The worst thing for you to do is to give me the impression that you’re trying to dump your problem onto me, or that you’re not willing to put in any effort. Don’t do this.

Show me that you’ve already tried to solve the problem for yourself and explain to me where you got stuck. If you’re coming to me for advice or to validate a course of action, show me the research you’ve already done. Tell me your line of thinking, the options you’re considering and the trade-offs between them.

Another thing you should avoid doing is asking “how do I do X?" without explaining what your goal or desired end-state is. It’s a common pitfall to get tunnel vision and become focused on a certain approach or line of thinking where you stop seeing other ways of addressing the problem.

If you don’t give me the big picture, I won’t be able to pull you back and put you on a better course of action.

Effectively asking for help

So how do you effectively ask an expert for help? Here’s a list of guidelines you can follow that make it a lot more likely that I’ll want to help you.

Own the issue

Do your part. Be respectful of my time and avoid making a tell-me-what-I-should-do or please-solve-this-problem-for-me request. Ensure you’ve done your own research and explored options before you reach out for help.

Give me the key points first

Work places a lot of demands on my time and energy, so I’ll often be balancing many competing priorities. Make it easy for me to see, at a glance, what you’re stuck with or need so I can quickly decide whether it’s something I have the time for right now.

Putting the Bottom Line Up Front is a good strategy to apply here.

Explain the problem

After summarizing the key points, go into detail on the issue.

  • What is it that you are trying to solve? Most importantly, what’s your end goal or desired outcome?
  • What have you already considered or tried so far?
  • How or why didn’t that work, where did you get stuck trying?

The more information and context you’re able to give me here, the more likely it is I’ll be able to help you.

Make a clear request

What do you expect from me exactly? Do you want me to…

  • Point you in the right direction?
  • Give you advice or feedback on a course of action?
  • Introduce you to somebody else who could help you solve the problem?
  • Solve the problem for you?

Also, put effort into your message. Make sure there’s a clear structure, run it through a spellchecker and avoid long tangents or ramblings.

Report back on the outcome

People often forget this step, but this is key if you want to build long-lasting relationships.

Being an expert doesn’t mean I’m going to be right all the time, so if I helped you with something, I’d love to hear about the end-result. Did things work out successfully in the end? Did you follow my advice, or did you ultimately go with a different course of action?

I may learn a thing or two myself from your experience, and this is also a great way to show gratitude. Reporting back on how things went is going to be more memorable to me than simple words of thanks.