Why we hate asking for help - and how to do it anyway

The pain of social rejection is real.

by Heidi Grant
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2018

My father was one of the seemingly countless legions of men who would rather drive through an alligator-infested swamp then ask for directions back to the road, which made driving with him something of a liability in the days before everyone’s phone contained Google Maps. (He would invariably claim that he had not taken a wrong turn, but had ‘always wanted to know what was over here.’)

But why will people go to such great lengths to avoid having to ask for a favor or for help of any kind? To understand why asking for help can feel so painful, it’s useful to take a look under the hood at how human brains are wired. You are probably familiar with phrases like ‘he broke my heart’ and ‘the sting of rejection.’ You may have felt that another person’s criticism felt like ‘a punch in the gut.’

One of the most interesting insights to emerge from the still relatively new field of social neuroscience is that our brain processes social pain — discomfort arising from our interactions with others — in much the same way as it processes the physical pain of a muscle cramp or a stubbed toe. There is more truth, in other words, to those figures of speech than you might ever have realised.

The neurology

Studies by UCLA social neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger have shown that the experience of both social and physical pain involves an area of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, or dACC, which has the highest density of opioid receptors — responsible for signaling pain and reward — of any region of the brain.

Being rejected or treated unfairly activates the dACC just as a headache would. Eisenberger, along with her collaborator Nathan DeWall, was able to show that taking a thousand milligrams of Tylenol every day for three weeks resulted in the experience of significantly less social pain compared to a control group that took a placebo. Taking a painkiller had made the participants less sensitive to everyday rejection experiences. Evidently, you can treat your heartache and your hangover at the same time. (Why no one is marketing ibuprofen for this purpose yet, I can’t imagine.)

But why would the human brain process a breakup like a broken arm? It’s because pain — physical and social — is an important signal in our quest for survival. It alerts us that something is wrong, that we have injured either our bodies or our connections to others, both of which have been, throughout most of human history, literally essential for staying alive.

When you ask for help from someone else, it opens up the possibility that you will experience all kinds of social pain. Many people at least unconsciously feel that they have lowered their status and invited ridicule or scorn, particularly when the help request means revealing a lack of knowledge or ability. Many are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing how the person will answer, the lack of autonomy – since you have no choice but to accept their answer, and, of course, the fear of rejection if they say no.

No wonder, then, that we avoid asking for help like the plague. The plague might seem less dangerous in comparison.

No pain, no gain

Although the idea of asking for even a small amount of help makes most of us horribly uncomfortable, the truth about modern work is that we rely, more than ever, on the cooperation and support of others. No one succeeds in a vacuum, whether you are in an entry-level position or have a view from the C-suite. Cross-functional teams, agile project management techniques, and matrixed or hierarchy-minimising organisational structures mean we’re all collaborating more and having to suffer the small agony of asking people to help us on a regular basis.

And I’m not just talking about getting help from your colleagues and peers; if you are a leader, you need to figure out how to elicit and coordinate helpful, supportive behavior from the people you are leading, too. Arguably, that is what management is.

But in many instances, we ask for help in such a way that we make people feel controlled, rather than giving them what they need to really want to help us— and to make helping us rewarding.

Knowing how to get people to want to give you their best — and making sure they benefit as much as possible from having helped you — is not knowledge we are born with. Getting other people to eagerly do what you need in response to your request requires that you create the right environment and frame your request in such a way that others will rush gladly to your aid.

There are, in fact, four vital steps that must occur in order for a helper to ultimately help you:

1. The first step to getting the help you want from others is ensuring that they see your need. In general, people aren’t paying attention to you the way you assume they are because they are preoccupied with their own stuff.

2. You need to assure your potential benefactors that you welcome the help they could provide. People know that you might resent unrequested help, so you need to convey that you actually want help.

3. Ensure that the potential helper actually assumes responsibility for helping. When you ask for help from a large group (say, via an email with many recipients), it’s not clear why I should be the one to help you.

4. Finally, remember that your need is not the only thing your helper has to worry about. People have other commitments. Be open to allowing them to help you in other ways, if they just can’t manage your initial request.

None of us can go it alone. We all need people to support us, do favors, pick up our slack, and go to bat for us. And when we overcome the almost universal fear of seeking help, and learn the right ways to ask, people are much more likely to help us than we realise.

Heidi Grant is a social psychologist. This article was excerpted from Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, and reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2018 Heidi Grant. All rights reserved.

Image credit: nadtochiy/Shutterstock

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