Need help at work? Here’s the best way to ask

Asking for help in a professional setting may be a source of discomfort for many people. If you find yourself in a position where you’re stuck at work and need help, you may worry about bothering your co-workers, asking an obvious question, or looking incompetent. Here are three strategies you can employ that will make asking for help easier.

Do your homework. Before asking for help, make sure the question you want to ask is worth asking in the first place.

Think about or even write down what you currently know, what you don’t know but can figure out yourself, and what you don’t know and can’t figure out yourself.

Think about the question you’d like to ask and see where it stands. Can you find a solution to this problem without help or do you need to seek the expertise of outside resources?

Find the best person at the best time. Now that you’ve done your homework and are sure your question is worth asking, the next step is to identify the least disruptive way to approach someone. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Who is the best person to ask?
  2. When is the best time to ask?
  3. Where is the best place to ask?

The best person to start with is the most junior coworker at your level, near your level, or someone whose job it is to answer your specific questions (for instance, HR or IT). If you have identified the best person, before approaching them, ask yourself if you will likely need their help again soon. If you think you will, then write down your question and wait until you’ve collected a few questions so that you can ask them multiple questions at once instead of several questions at separate times.

For the best time and place, remember to be considerate of the other person’s movements and schedule. The best time is generally when you are already speaking with them. You can prepare for this if you know you will be in a meeting together by asking at the beginning of the gathering if they’ll have a couple of minutes after to answer your questions.

Show your homework (and your gratitude). A recommended way of framing your question is not just to jump straight into the question. Try going with: “here’s my question, and here’s why I’m asking this question.”

For example, you can turn “how do I submit my timesheet?” to “Lisa mentioned that you’re the go-to person for timesheets. Is this v2.4 the most current one?”

If your question requires a more subjective answer, then make it easy for others to help you by giving them something to work with rather than just posing an open-ended question like “what do I do next?”

Share the context behind your question, then follow that with a closed-ended question like “Am I headed in the right direction with these ideas?” or, “Which do you prefer, option A, B, or C?”

Once you’ve been helped by a colleague, don’t forget to show your appreciation for them taking time out of their busy schedules to address your needs.

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