From Trust

People Skills and the Art of Asking for Help

If you’re in one of those life patches where nothing is green and the riverbeds are parched you might live by simple, if unpleasant proposition: ask for help until you don’t need it anymore.

But even at wit’s end we need our wits about us. Because the human response to beseeching isn’t uniform: maybe we’re all alike when we feel vulnerable, but when we’re facing vulnerable people, we’re a little more diverse.

I’ve been studying this of late and here’s what I’ve learned: people-reading skills are really important when you’re asking for help.

Some of us really can’t handle vulnerability. I don’t assume something’s wrong when people can’t hack it: most of them are caring, understanding and inclined to do the right thing. But when another person implores or just asks, straight up, “can we talk? Life’s rough right now,” they freeze.

I think that’s a reflection of the culture at large. Collaboration is all the rage, but we’re taught to link to people with strength, confidence, and a winning track record. An open-book approach clashes with established exchange protocols: ‘How are you? I’m great. Yeah, me too!’ But throw in, ‘Well, actually I need work, and fast’, and the protocol is dropped. An exchange we could have in our sleep just got complicated.

It’s pretty simple identifying a negative reaction after you’ve effectively shut the other person down. The trick is to gauge what type of reaction you’re likely to receive if you lead with an ask.

You should be aware of the time of day, the context of the meeting, the other person’s appearance, anything that might help you figure how receptive she might be to candor. Mainly, though, it comes down to temperament. Lots of us want order in our lives. If you suspect your ask will disrupt order, it might make more sense to fake it ‘til ya make it.

But some people appreciate honesty, and are ready to listen. Those folks might, conversely, be turned off if you try convincing them you’re doing great before you reveal that well, actually, there are a few problems. In these cases, you might detect that they take things slower, weigh your words before responding, and resist glib overstatements. Generally, these people appreciate nuance. While accepting that you’re overall a steady, industrious person, they might recognize you’re on rocky terrain and offer help (or at least advice) before you can even ask.

If you’re meeting for the first time, it might be trial and error until you come to trust your instincts. I’ve shared my belief in abundance many times, and that approach might be the best. For every person that recoils from your vulnerable outreach, there will be one — the right one — who is eager to connect. And the connection is what sells.

But you might feel safer and wiser keeping up appearances until you’ve seen real evidence that you’ve found someone who can handle authenticity.

The connection is what sells. And even when times are tough, you likely have many helping hands around you. Stay strong and keep sharp. There’s an art to practice here and an opportunity to hone your intuition.

Just Say It

Everything has a price. No, I’m not being dramatic, cynical, or salty after paying too much for my vanilla latte. I’m stating a fact about professional services. They cost. And because most people who provide them have worked very hard to get where they are and care about excellence — instead of being just good enough — I’m quite OK with the cost structure.

Except when people seem embarrassed by it.

I’ve recently had to shop for some professional business services. It’s sensitive stuff, so it’s important that I find an attorney who is not just excellent, but in my comfort zone. I don’t expect to ‘click’ with everyone I meet.

But as a professional who knows her worth, and who knows about selling, it’s hard not to notice when another pro clearly hasn’t thought through the implications of sales in their practice.

Two lawyers I met recently had two things in common:

  1. Neither quoted their fee. They coughed it up when I asked, and attached a roundabout, and drawn out, explanation of why they charge it.
  2. Gender. Sadly, but not surprisingly, they both were women.

As you might guess, I sense a connection between these facts. Many female professionals — too many, I’d argue — engage prospective clients as if they’re hoping money just won’t get talked about.

Argh. Ladies (and gents), just say it: ‘I charge XX per hour/project/session’. Fill in the blanks and lay it out there. Practice in the mirror if that helps. But before the client leaves the first session, say it. It’s your job.

I’d argue that there is one imperative each for the professional and the prospective client regarding The Number. It’s the professional’s responsibility to quote the price without being asked.

The prospective client, if so inclined, can ask for a cost breakdown. The professional has the office, license, practice and status, all earned. When asked, they should respectfully explain the breakdown. But there is no need to justify the price.

And there certainly is no cause for embarrassment. The evasiveness of those two attorneys would not be enough for me to disqualify them on its own. But the professional relationship is based in part on trust. I’m inclined to believe that both women are still fighting with old messaging that drones about the inappropriateness of asking for things, being too focused on money, yada yada. But other prospects might pick up on the money discomfort and interpret it as something more insidious; this undermines trust, which carries far more serious implications that plain old discomfort.

I’m still shopping. I might even choose one of these lawyers after all. But please, folks, don’t give me a five minute explanation (justification) of your prices. Just quote the fee already and leave it at that. If you’re really as good at your work as you say you are, the numbers can speak for themselves.