“Reinforcements”: Ask for Help, It’s a Win-Win

Reinforcements is a delightful and surprising masterpiece. Grant’s compelling weave of stories and studies shows how to ask for help (and how not to), and–believe it or not–why, when you ask others for help, you do them a big favor. Robert Sutton, professor/author

Who’s afraid to ask for help? Possibly most of us, at least a lot of the time. Social psychologist Heidi Grant‘s new Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You (2018) is here to help us with that.

As the Reinforcements blurb states, “But here’s the funny thing: even though we hate to ask for help, most people are wired to be helpful.” I mean, haven’t you ever found yourself asking for something and then realizing that the helper actually got a kick out of it? Grant encourages readers to use this to our advantage in all spheres of life and work.

According to research, the idea that asking for help is risky is probably at least half wrong. When studied, that percentage of participants underestimated how receptive people would be to requests for help (Tim Herrera, New York Times).

“We’re reluctant to ask for help in part because we feel like there will be a pretty good chance we’ll be rejected,” Grant tells Angela Chen, The Verge, in an interview. “So, why do we think we’re going to be rejected? It comes from a failure of perspective-taking. When I’m asking you for help, I’m focused on how effortful or unpleasant the request is, how busy the person is, how annoying it’ll be for them to help me. All of that makes me think they’re not going to say yes.”

But not only are you likely to get a positive response much of the time, “people who have rejected you in the past are actually more likely to help you than other people. When I reject you and you offer me another opportunity to help, if I can, I jump at it. I want to feel better. I want to repair the relationship.”

And it’s generally not true that asking for help will make us less liked or admired. “Basically, the idea is: if I help you, I want to like you. We want to be consistent in what we do, so we believe that if I helped someone, I must like them.”

Some other basic lessons on help-seeking from Grant include:

  • Try asking in person or on the phone. It’s more effective than email or text.
  • Be clear and direct about what you need or want.
  • Direct your inquiry to specific people versus a large group.

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