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Help, I Need Somebody!

"So, you are have been having trouble understanding the concepts from unit 4?"

"Yes," the student replies.

"When did you first become confused?", the teacher asks.

"When we learned about determining velocity."

"That was four weeks ago," the teacher says with eyebrows scrunched together.

The student shrugs his shoulders and replies, "I know."

"So, you have been confused for four weeks, and this is the first time you are asking me for help?!"


And, so it goes. This scenario is more familiar than an episode of Friends. But, why? Why do people, especially young adult students/professionals have so much difficulty asking for help. This is a complex issue, but one that seriously needs addressing. Sometimes, it is a matter of pride. A student may feel like asking for help is a weakness. In other words, if I was smart enough, artistic enough, had enough common sense, (whatever enough) I could figure this out on my own. So, asking for help is a failure, and many people are uncomfortable admitting to a failure. Other students have trouble asking for help, because they may be quieter or even shy, and asking for help is asking for attention that they might not be comfortable receiving. Think about it, even if you get up the nerve to ask for help, most likely you will end up in a one-on-one conversation that will last many minutes or even a half hour (Whoa!) about a topic you don't understand. That could sound like a nightmare to many. Still other students, don't even know what they don't know. They may not realize they need help or know the questions to ask to receive the help they need. They may be so far in the weeds on an issue that it is embarassing to admit that they have been confused for as long as they have been. It reminds me of my younger self, who never corrected people when they called me Helen (my name is Helene - the "e" does something to the pronounciation). I never corrected them. After several more episodes of being called Helen, that is your name for that person. It is too embarassing to admit that you have been allowing this to happen for so long. Finally, some students want to ask for help, but they may feel the person who holds the information they need is unapproachable, difficult to communicate with or punitive.

Why does this matter? To keep with the theme, "we all get by with a little help from our friends." I tell students, you can do almost anything if you are willing to accept help. I run a thesis class. In that class, they don't do work in their major. Just the opposite. They must do something on a topic they know a little about, but not much. They must reach out and find a mentor. They must rely on the help of their peers in the clas, to get over the roadblocks and to figure out what they don't know. When they are done, they have these amazing projects (in one case, the student - a global communications major - had erected an eight foot tall working fountain on campus. Her mentor was our VP of Faciltiites). You are not only one thing; you are anything you want to be, if you can ask questions, get a mentor, and rely on others to help you. When you try to do too much yourself, it can be a lonely or isolating experience. It also limits what you can accomplish. For every person who is a planner, the next person is a big idea thinker. Together they can make beautiful things happen. By themselves, they are limited to their own strengths.

I always ask students how many of you like being asking for help. Over the years, I would say 99% of them raise their hands. If you like giving help, why are you unwilling to ask for it? Seems almost unkind to deny others an experience you enjoy. When people ask for your expertise, trust you with their problems, etc., it is a compliment. Yes, being asked for help too often can be exhausting, and we all need to know how to say "no" when the requests become too much (but, that is a different blog post), but for the most part when someone trusts you to asks for your help, it is an acknowledgement of your strengths, a showing of respect, and a willingness to be vulnerable around you. Asking for help requires a certain amount of vulnerability (vulnerability in admiting you don't know something, that you can't do it alone, that you may not have the answers, that you will have to go outside your comfortable zone).

How can we make it easier for others to be vulnerable with us, so they can ask for the help they need?

- Role model asking for help. Adults, especially those in leadership positions, should ask for help from students and from other adults, openly, so others can see it.

- Exhibit empathy. Get to know the people you work with; show care so they trust you to ask for assistance.

- Be communicative about your willingness to help.

- In work or college settings, provide new employees or students with a mentor.

Learning to ask for help is an important skill. Think about every new job/task you have ever had. How many times were you confused? How much easier was it when you felt comfortable asking for help? Needing help and not being able to ask for it, leads to frustration, which leads to a loss of motivation and even shame. These emotions drive disconnection. If we want emotionally happy and successful students or employees, we need to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking for help.

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