Podcast: Heidi Grant on asking for help

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

A major theme of the Best of Both Worlds podcast is that martyrdom is overrated. Part of avoiding martyrdom is asking for help from various people at work and at home. It turns out there’s a whole slew of research out there on asking for help, and what works and what doesn’t.

So this week we have Heidi Grant on the program, talking about this topic. Heidi Grant is the author of the new book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. She holds a doctorate in social psychology, is the Senior Scientist for the NeuroLeadership Institute, and serves as Associate Director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. She also has two kids. Some of the tidbits she shared with Sarah and me:

Asking for help is hard. People are very, very reticent to ask, particularly in person. In her book, she talks about experiments where people would ask others to give them their seats on the subway. The people assigned to ask would often become so nervous and felt so ill about the whole thing that they probably could have used those seats! And yet…

People are highly likely to say yes. When asked to do something individually, people really do not want to say no. If they have to say no for some reason, they will generally go out of their way to help you the next time. Grant talks about asking for a blurb for a previous book from some famous gentleman, who turned her down. Her editor insisted she try him again for a subsequent book, which Grant thought was just asking for punishment, but not only did this guy agree, he gave her a blurb that was so over-the-top gushing she found it almost embarrassing. People like to think of themselves as helpful, and not helping introduces such cognitive dissonance that we really want to put things right soon.

Asking for help (nicely) makes people like you more, not less. We assume that asking for help makes us seem weak and unlikeable, but human nature doesn’t work that way. Grant recounts a great anecdote about Benjamin Franklin. One of the leading lights of Philadelphia was opposed to Franklin’s candidacy for something. So Franklin wrote the gentleman a note asking if he could borrow a rare book from his library that he said he’d long wanted to see. The man agreed (why not? It was a relatively simple thing to do) but the net result was that the man felt much more friendly toward Franklin. When Franklin thanked him profusely for lending him the book, he stopped opposing Franklin’s candidacy. Again, it’s the cognitive dissonance thing. It’s hard to hold in the brain simultaneously that you are helping a person and you dislike them, and it’s easier to decide to like them than to not help.

Ask individually. When people are asked to do things in a group email they figure someone else will do it. When you ask individually, people feel they need to answer. Individual emails or phone calls are effective, but in person is even better. Sarah mentions that when she’s trying to trade a call schedule, she definitely goes into the person’s office to ask! I emailed 100 influencers individually to ask them to mention my new book, Off the Clock, on social media. The vast majority did.

Frame the request right. Don’t minimize it! Sometimes in our quest for help we try to downplay the favor so it will seem easier to do, but that’s the wrong approach. Instead, play up just how helpful it will be. Appealing to people’s identities is also smart. Research finds that when people have any sort of connection to the person asking for help — even if it’s ridiculous — they’re more likely to comply. Another way to appeal to identity, especially with children: ask them to “be a helper” rather than just ask them to help. I’ve taken this to heart and have praised my children for being such big helpers when they take on tasks.

Follow up. Grant mentions that an amazing number of people who’ve asked her for letters of recommendation over the years have not followed up to say what the result was. Come on, people! Nothing makes people want to be helpful in the future like finding out that their help really changed someone’s world now.

Anyway, it doesn’t always work — the Q&A is about a request I made for help that was not given in the way I wished — but there’s a lot of food for thought in here. Please give it a listen!

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15 thoughts on “Podcast: Heidi Grant on asking for help

  1. It really depends on what is being asked for. A neighbor recently asked me if they could “join” our pool membership so they wouldn’t have to pay for a separate one themselves, and it made me feel really weird. Similarly, people selling things to friends — Avon, Amway, etc. — capitalize on these feelings and are also a turn off. OTOH, asking a flight attendant for a place to put some vomit soaked blankets, and some bystanders for some wet wipes, really seemed to being out the best in people.

    1. HA! We just had a seriously gross kid/plane/vomit situation a few weeks ago — including vomiting in the aisle on the way to the bathroom, with droplets hitting some poor woman — and it was amazing how accommodating and kind people were! Glad you made it through to the other side!

  2. I recently came to the realization that the volume of lab work needed for my PhD wrap up was too much for one of me. It took me a long time to accept that I needed the help of our tech, but when I finally asked my mentor, he told me he had been waiting for me to figure this out. I was surprised by how easy that conversation was…I had been worried he’d tell me I wasn’t managing my time properly or I was not a hard enough worker.

    Unfortunately, the person I ended up working with caused more work than less (seriously, it’s not helping if you ask that we do experiments ‘side by side’. The point is for you to do this experiment and for me to do another one, and all the data come together for the paper). This is just more work for me), so I am now figuring out the lesser of two evils.

    Asking for help in lab in general has gone a long way in getting our very cliquey techs to be (outwardly) kinder to me. Even if I know a technique, I used to run new things by one or the other one just to see if I missed anything and to win them over, which is a stupid game to play, but I played it. But I will not be looking back fondly on the interpersonal aspect of grad school…

  3. On Laura’s Q&A – I would do whatever I needed to do to vent my frustration and diassappointment NOT directly at my husband (too likely to put him on the defensive and be unproductive) – talk to a friend, write an angry email I don’t intend to send, etc. Then, as calmly and dispassionately as possible, I’d find a time with my husband when the kids weren’t around and we weren’t too tired to discuss it well, and say something along the lines of, “In the past, I’ve often felt overwhelmed during book launches. I thought this time I had asked you for the support I would need from you, enough in advance for you to provide it, and from my point of view that did not work. Help me understand this – did you not hear me? Did you not believe me? Did you not understand what was involved? What can we do differently next time to try for a better outcome?” E.g. help him understand that there’s a problem and ask him to work with you to develop solutions for next time. (Hopefully along the way you also get some feeling-repairing apologies.)

    Sorry it didn’t work out well this time.

  4. This was one of my favourite episodes, I’ll definitely be checking out the guest’s book!
    As far as your dilemma with your husband, I agree with Sarah’s suggestions to make the request very specific (exact dates, exact tasks you will be handing over). Also, 100% agree with offering to have it added to his Outlook or put with his admin assistant. Maybe better, ask him what you could do to “help him help you” next time, as far as reminders or having it all set up in advance. It’s annoying when there’s so much extra work just to get the help, but one of those cases where it’s better to be happy than to be right.
    I’d also note that this really took me back to your conversation with Gretchen Rubin, where you were surprised to learn that your husband is an obliger (since he doesn’t worry about obliging you). I have the same in my husband, and it would be much less stressful to him to let me down than to let his company/client down (that sounds much worse in writing than I mean it to!) You mentioned that after 25 years he can choose whether he does things, but that perception might not be there for him? Just a thought, and good luck! Update us on the strategy and whether it works.

  5. Another really great episode! I feel like I have improved at asking for help (career + two kids under three + work away husband = necessary) but I will definitely implement some of the strategies discussed! Also ordering a copy of her previous book about how you come across to others as it seems very interesting and helpful! Keep up the great work!

  6. Hi! I just finished “Off the Clock” and wanted to say I enjoyed it – thank you for writing it! I read your blog and listen to the podcast, so I had a decent idea of what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised with the differences between this book and “I Know How She Does It” (which I loved and caused me to follow you regularly).
    One thought came to mind while listening to the Q&A. You didn’t specifically mention how often you reminded your husband about your request, but did say that you brought it up early on (10 months out). One thing both my husband and I have done to each other is ask for help way in advance and then not make reminders/follow ups closer to the requested date, at which point the asked has limited memory of what, specifically, they are going to be helping with. I’m not sure if this applies to your situation, but we’ve tried to find the line between obnoxious and reminding regularly, since it’s easy to lose track of another person’s calendar.

  7. Really enjoyed the interview in this episode!

    As for the Q&A, a few thoughts: my husband I have found that “ask early, remind often” helps when coordinating travel schedules. As soon as either of us knows we have a trip on the horizon (which is generally 2-4 times per month each), we (1) discuss it over dinner, (2) have the other one add it to his/her work Outlook calendar (usually right there at the dinner table – a critical step, because it becomes much harder to forget and much easier to schedule around), and (3) write it on the big paper family calendar which hangs on the door coming from the garage into the house. As the trips approach, we generally remind each other. And because we plan dinners for the week ahead and I grocery shop on Saturday morning, there’s always a mental trigger on Saturday to remind us who will be out of town on what days.

    Also, is there any way some of the kid stuff could come off the schedule for a period of time? Reschedule dental appointments at a 7-8 month interval rather than 6… skip some birthday parties… etc. Being ruthless about defining what’s mandatory and rescheduling things as necessary has been helpful for us (although we have just two kids, not four!)

    Also, as Christine noted, it’s *possible* that your husband doesn’t feel like he has as much freedom as it may appear he does — especially if he’s in a client-facing industry like law or consulting. Anecdotally, I’ve been at the same law firm for 11 years and have a “senior” position (not 25, but it’s something!), and I often have little ability to shape my schedule due to outside deadlines. My husband (who’s in an internal role at a bank) would probably say I’ve earned the right to shape my own schedule a little more than I feel I do!

  8. I really enjoyed this episode, especially since I am about to ask for more help with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop so I can finish my master’s degree.

    Re: Laura’s Q&A- I go through this every fall when school begins. I am a college professor and have summers off. So I handle most of the housework and kid stuff for three months (not to mention saving us a lot of money in camp/child care fees!) When I go back to work, my husband is slow to pick up his part of the slack that I have been managing all summer and it creates a lot of tension in our marriage. I spent a lot of time grumbling until I finally pinpointed the problem last fall (after five years!) and now I know to ask him for specific things as we transition in August. (We go back to school early here in New Orleans.)

    However, I also realized that a big part of my problem was emotional. I felt that he did not “see” all of the work that I do over the summer, and that made me feel unimportant. That may be part of your issue as well. I wanted to feel that he valued my contributions. It’s getting better and he’s a great husband and dad, but it’s always tough when someone minimizes what you do.

    1. @Lisa – I think the emotional component is a big part. Like, I want the people close to me to value and be proud of the work I do.

      1. Yep- we all want to be appreciated without waving our arms and saying- “hey, I did a thing!” Don’t feel bad for feeling that way! I think women in particular tend to want acknowledgement but don’t want to ask for it.

        1. I think I got this from one of Gretchen Rubin’s books, or maybe a poster here 🙂 but if I did something that I want “credit” for, I ask for a “gold star” explicitly. It’s kind of a joke, but surprisingly it makes me feel better even if I did fish for the praise 🙂 I’ve noticed my husband doing it too, with thankless jobs like fixing the irrigation drip system (which I would never notice in a million years). I’ve also noticed that kids do this naturally – they show the good things they’ve done and are definitely asking us to notice! I wonder when we learn to stop doing that…

  9. Great episode, although I have to say that I am a Questioner married to a Questioner, so often when I ask for help from my husband it’s met with a “Why?” Not fun! Although I also really liked the advice from Jancee Dunn in her book How Not to Hate Your Husband After to Kids to “push back against the pushback.” It’s still annoying but it helps me. Also sometimes I phrase the request with the reasoning right there (works sometimes) and other times I respond with my own questions, such as “do you want to be in charge of keeping all the little pieces together?”

    One thing that struck me during the Q&A was that I thought I heard that Laura asked her husband to travel “less,” which is kind of nebulous, and maybe to his mind he thought he was traveling less than usual and scaling back his work commitments. I am always amazed at how we say one thing and other people people interpret what we’ve said very differently, and how often this is even more pronounced between a wife and husband (although maybe it’s because we’re so comfortable with each other we think we know what they’re saying without really listening closely).

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