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.

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