Well-being: Help is at hand
Asking for help is a mutually beneficial arrangement
Psychologist and frontier thinker Jordan Peterson was asked the question 'What are the most valuable things everyone should know?' on the Q&A site Quora recently. As always, his response was thoughtful, insightful and deeply profound.
Peterson's answer was composed of 41 pearls of wisdom, and while they all resonated on some level, one in particular stood out: "Ask someone to do you a small favour, so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future."
Initially this made me think of a psychological phenomenon known as the 'Ben Franklin effect'. It's named after the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin who quoted in his autobiography an old maxim: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."
In the same book - an early How to Win Friends & Influence People, if you will -Franklin wrote about how he observed the influence of this principle for himself when he was dealing with a rival legislator.
"Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days," explained Franklin.
"He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. 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."
The principle has since been explored further by a number of psychological studies which have concluded that people are indeed more inclined to help those that they have already helped.
The Ben Franklin effect is the Machiavellian way to exploit the power of reciprocity. Peterson's advice, on the other hand, isn't about wielding influence or manipulating kindness. It's about building an emotional rapport that allows other people to overcome their fear of being vulnerable.
We all know that the best way to get someone to share is by sharing a little something of ourselves. It's much the same with encouraging someone to ask for help. Popular discourse around mental health talks a lot about opening up and reaching out. Perhaps it's time we realised that people are more likely to be vulnerable around those who are comfortable admitting their own vulnerabilities.
This is especially true for self-sacrificers, martyrs, helpers and fixers who are always willing to drop everything and ride in on their white horse to save the day. Perhaps they could offer more worthwhile assistance, to those who really need it, if they were able to ask for help themselves.
Brené Brown, writing in The Gifts of Imperfection, explains it best: "Until we can receive with an open heart, we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgement to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgement to giving help."
The issue, for most people, is that they think of themselves as a faulty cog rather than a part of a well-oiled machine when they ask for help. They forget that they are initiating a hardwired chain reaction of reciprocity.
That's why the people who are best at asking for help tend to be those who understand that the roles of 'helper' and 'help-seeker' are ever-evolving. They think of it as a symbiotic relationship that finds its own balance just as they know that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Others just need a gentle reminder. I've noticed lately that the quickest way to silence the endless, 'are you sure?' back-and-forth when I offer someone a favour or a loan of money is simply to say, "You'd do the same for me".
Of course, sometimes we have to ask for help when there is no past form and no clear idea about how we can return the favour in the future. "From what I've seen, it isn't so much the act of asking that paralyses us," writes Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking. "It's what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one."
Yet we can overcome these fears when we think of asking for help as the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship rather than a single entreaty. Ostensibly you're asking for the loan of a few bob until pay day; ultimately you're suggesting that your relationship could be expanded to one of reciprocity and support.
"One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on 'going it alone'," says Brené Brown. "Somehow we've come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we're very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves."
In some cases, this do-it-yourself attitude can become so entrenched that people extricate themselves from situations without trying to remedy them first. They leave jobs when they become overwhelming and relationships when they become emotionally taxing. Perish the thought that people would think of them as vulnerable.
If this sounds like you, it's best to start small. Sometimes we just need to hear the words coming out of our own mouths. If you're asking for assistance in a shop, try saying 'Can you help me?' instead of 'Excuse me' and get into the habit of saying, 'Thank you for your help', even when the smallest of favours have been bestowed. Over time you'll develop the courage to say 'I'm struggling' or 'I'm under pressure' in situations that you would otherwise resist.
Asking for help is like a muscle that grows stronger with use. We just have to work out how to flex it first.
Health & Living