“I just want a small help”: 5 classic mistakes to AVOID while asking for help

We all need help at times.

And wisdom says, when we do, we should have the humility to accept that we need it and ask for it.

But like everything else, there are ways to do it.

Ways that are right, and ways that are not.

Here are 4 things to NOT do while asking for help

Mistake #1) “I have to talk to you about something” — being unclear, indirect, devious

Sending vague messages like — “hey I want to talk to you about something” or “I have something to ask you”, is the most common mistake.

People use this indirect method for 2 reasons:

  1. They are generally uncomfortable being straightforward
  2. They fear the other person will avoid them if they get to know of the “real” agenda

If anything, being indirect and misleading can reduce the chances of getting help.

  • When people don’t know what to expect in a discussion, but suspect something will be asked from them — they raise their defense. This means they will resist more than they naturally would.
  • When people cannot take an informed decision* on the “urgency” of your need, they will usually assign it a lower priority.

(Informed decision does not mean you writing “Urgent!! pls respond”. It means you sharing the actual facts and they deciding if it is urgent)

Stating upfront that you need help with <specify>, is your best bet.

Mistake #2) “I need a small help” — defining the magnitude of help

This is an extension of what I said earlier about informed decision. Whether something is urgent or not, big or small — is the decision of the person who is extending the help.

We may make assumptions that something will take only a little effort or time from the other person, but we may not know what is going on in the other person’s life.

Often people use phrases like “small help” to try and make the help appear less daunting to the other person

This approach too is a mistake and reduces chances of getting the help.

  • If your assessment of “small” help does not match the other person’s assessment of the effort required, they are likely to feel manipulated
  • People like to feel good about having extended some significant help. “Small help” doesn’t sound encouraging
State the EXACT thing you need
And try saying a “BIG thankyou”

Mistake #3) “You are a leader, you must give new-comers a chance” — obliged agreement

This is the worst mistake of all. The other person could be anyone or anything — coach, leader, rich, self-made, etc, etc.

None of it means anything.

Just because people are from a certain background or profession, they are not obliged to stand by a value system you think they should, and definitely not one that is convenient to your purpose.

“You are from HR so you must give opportunity”, “You are a woman, so you must consider my case”..

This method does not work because people don’t like being cornered into doing anything.

A better way..

Present honest facts about how you will put the ‘help’ to genuine use
Taking authentic interest in the person’s background and doing some research to find common ground works better*

(*Authentic is the key word and common ground can be explored only if it exists, else it should not be force-fitted)

Mistake #4) “Thought I will catch up….and I need some help” — showing care when you don’t mean it

This one feels like a sting. An ex-colleague calls unexpectedly, with a cheerful “Hiii” followed by conversation on “its been a while, how have you been”.

Just when the other person is starting to feel good about someone having remembered you in this busy world, comes the killer statement (usually made to sound very casual)..

“Hey listen, I needed a small help..”

If the mistake in this approach is not already obvious, let me state it.

People feel cheated, worse insulted.

Even if you have called after ages, start with saying you are calling to seek help.

Finish that, then move to the “so..how have you been” part.

That’s what on your mind. Let the conversation reflect it.

Being authentic about intentions is showing respect to another person

I once called the husband of a good friend with whom I barely had any contact in the last 5 years. Her spouse was the national head of a major cab network. I was stranded in a remote location in Bangalore after a workshop and could not find any cabs at a late hour.

Imagine calling the spouse of a friend, after 5 years, at 9.30 pm — did I mention — in another city!! — to divert a cab for me.

This is what I told him..

“I am so embarrassed I am calling you after 5 years, so late, and disturbing you for something so trivial at your level. But I am stranded, and could not think of anyone else who could help me.”

I told him that, because that is exactly and genuinely what I felt at that time.

Imagine how insulting it would be, had I said -

“Hii its been a long time, how are you, etc, etc… listen can you please do me a favor. I am stuck at this place, can you pleeeease help me get a cab?”

I wasn’t calling to catch up with him. It would be disrespectful to say so.

Mistake #5) “TIA” — forgetting the good old etiquette

Good manner never go out of fashion.

No TIA (Thanks in Advance) or tks (thanks said in the most unthankful way). If you are so lazy that you cannot type out a proper “thank you” — why should someone take out time to help you?

Also, knowing the difference between following up and pestering

Best way is to ask..

“When do you think is a good time for me to check back with you?”

If you have made attempts to contact twice, without a response, recognize it as a “no”, send a polite thankyou mail anyways, and close it.

Finally, the approach BEFORE and AFTER seeking help counts

Even before deciding on the right approach to seek help, it is important to reflect on the nature of relationship we have with the person we are seeking help from.

There are always those people whom we can call at the middle of the night for help, have a terrible fight and still know you can count on them, and perhaps don’t even need to ‘ask’.

But those relationships are few and precious.

Most others rest on fine lines dividing mere acquaintances, people we are ‘friendly with’, peers and a whole lot of combinations.

In a dire situation, you would probably ask even a stranger for help.

But in all other circumstances, evaluating the nature of relationship is most critical to deciding whether or not, when, how much and how you will ask for help.

Example: Adding someone on LinkedIn and immediately sending a very direct mail to find a job for a company they worked at previously, with an obligation to “respond at the earliest”.

Being sensitive to the relationship while asking for help is not only important to get the “help”, but also to begin and maintain the relationship itself.

The second part is after someone has asked for help.

What if the other person does not offer the help, we asked for?

Remember that the other person is not obliged to help you. No one is.

When someone says no, or avoids, or ignores, it hurts.

If you reached out to friends, family or someone you helped in the past, it hurts more.

But that is okay. As much as we hate it, we must allow people the right to say no.

Sometimes the reasons are justified, sometimes they are not. Most of the times, we never know the REAL reason someone denied a help. We ASSUME.

Assumptions kill relationships. Worse, it leaves us with a sense of bitterness.

And in all fairness, we say “no” to others aswell.

So, this becomes the most important part about asking for help..

That help is about relationships.

Sometimes, it takes a relationship for someone to help us.

Sometimes, a help becomes the start of a relationship.

And when it is about human relationships, it cannot be about “techniques and strategies”…

It is about

honesty to accept we need help,

humility to ask for it,

gratitude when we receive it; and

gracefulness when we don’t.


Swati Jena is a “Top writer in Leadership” on Medium.

You can read her other popular posts on LinkedIn or Medium.

(Use this link to Medium blogspot)

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