How Asking For Help Puts You Ahead

How Asking For Help Puts You Ahead

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” — Benjamin Franklin

Founding father Benjamin Franklin was famous for many inventions and writings — the lightning rod, bifocals, and plenty of articles and books — but one of his lesser-known creations is known today as the Benjamin Franklin Effect, which is a theory in psychology that explains why asking for help can actually have profound effects. 

Most of us find asking for help to be sometimes difficult. We think it makes us look like we can’t handle the tasks on our plate or aren’t capable of completing a job. But Franklin thought otherwise. He knew that asking for a favor could turn foes into friends and, ultimately, help him get ahead. 

When he was running for a clerk position, Franklin knew he had to win the the trust and friendship of his opponent (who Franklin knew would go on to hold great power), so after winning the seat, Franklin, who was an avid book collector, wrote to the man and asked to borrow a book he couldn’t find. A week later Franklin returned the book, and suddenly his opponent became warmer. 

“When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death,” Franklin later wrote of his strategy, which psychologists still study to this day. 

There are plenty of reasons to ask for help, as the founding father shows us, and not all of them are to lighten our work loads. Asking for help also helps us become better leaders, better learners, and better at managing our tasks and team so that everybody is happier. 

Build better relationships 

It may seem curious as to how asking a simple favor was able to serve Franklin so well. It seems paradoxical that one would ask another person (especially somebody who is considered an adversary) for help and end up getting even more in return. 

But research has confirmed that’s exactly what happens in the Benjamin Franklin Effect. 

“Under certain circumstances, when an individual performs a favour for another person, his liking for that person will increase,” wrote two researchers who studied the phenomenon in the mid 1960s. “By performance of a favour we mean the voluntary exertion of effort, expenditure of time, or concession of material possessions for the benefit of another person without direct remuneration. As long as a person likes the recipient of the favor, feels that he is deserving, or that he would probably return the favor, the person is able to offer himself ample justification for having performed the favor.”

This means that asking for help has its limitations. You can’t expect to hand off an entire project to a colleague and expect them to cheerfully take it on and offer more help. Instead, asking for their expertise or feedback can be a great way to build bridges. 

Remember, asking for help can be strategic. It can help make others feel included, and when you really find yourself in a bind later on, you may have somebody in your corner. 

Improve communication

If Franklin would have never reached out to his opponent, his relationship with him likely never would have improved. The idea that asking for help makes communication among colleagues and teams better is one that Stanford psychologist Xuan Zhao has studied extensively. 

“We love stories about spontaneous help, and that may explain why random acts of kindness go viral on social media,” she says. “But in reality, the majority of help occurs only after a request has been made. It’s often not because people don’t want to help and must be pressed to do so.”

It’s actually the opposite. 

“...People want to help, but they can’t help if they don’t know someone is suffering or struggling, or what the other person needs and how to help effectively, or whether it is their place to help – perhaps they want to respect others’ privacy or agency,” Zhao says. 

By asking a direct question, you’re removing those uncertainties and unlocking opportunities for connection. Zhao says it can also “create emotional closeness when you realize someone trusts you enough to share their vulnerabilities, and by working together toward a shared goal.”

How to get help

It’s reassuring to know, especially via research like Zhao’s, that people are often willing to help when they are able to. It helps getting over the uncertainty of whether to ask a favor. 

Psychology also tells us that there are better ways of asking for help, too. Recall the studies you may have hard about people who spend money on others (rather than themselves) being happier. This same effect applies to favors. People like the feeling of having helped somebody, so when you’re asking for help, it’s important that you keep that in mind. 

“You want people to feel that they would be helping because they want to, not because they must, and that they’re in control of the decision,” writes the Harvard Business Review. “That means avoiding any language suggesting that you or someone else is instructing them to help, that they should help, or that they have no choice but to do so.”

This is likely how Franklin was able to win over his opponent. He felt that he was being helpful to Franklin and didn’t feel like he was being badgered by request. 

Whether you’re trying to win over an adversary or asking somebody on your team to help with a big deadline, there are a few ways you can ensure your request is successful: 

  • Shift focus to the benefits. People like to see that they’ve made a difference, so make that your main point. 
  • Avoid language that may feel like you’re giving instruction. 
  • Be direct. Simplicity will get you much further. 
  • Think about citing a common goal. This boosts inclusivity and makes others feel like they’re part of something bigger. 

At the end of the day, we all need a little help, and it’s okay to ask for it! Don’t fear that you’ll be rejected (people like to help) or that it makes you look unable to handle your own work. You’ll likely find out that asking a favor will have way more ramifications than bad.

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