The Art of Asking for Help – Who knows what?!?

I used to feel extremely humiliated when I have to ask for help.  What’s worse was when I had to reach over to my (secret) arch-enemy in 9th grade Algebra Trigonometry class to ask him for help.  Oh! The humiliation!  He was always happy to help me, but it was because of my inflated ego that ballooned way too big, making it very, very difficult for me to be humble enough to seek for assistance.  I would be extremely frustrated with myself and imagined my arch enemy sneering at me as I struggled to untangle this monstrous math equation.  That’s how I lived through middle school and high school, I always had this foolish idea that I’m smarter than everyone else and no one could possibly be smart enough to be of any help to me.  Boy, was I wrong!  There’s that one day when I got stuck on a math problem that even I can not solve.  I could not even match up to my own standards!  How embarrassing was that?!

I have to admit, it was the first time I had to deflate my ego and muster what self-respect I had left to admit to myself that I didn’t understand the problem.  The next step was to ask my classmate for help.  Thinking back on my school days, I was just being silly.  However, these experiences helped me come up with these 6 steps for how to ask effectively.

Please keep in mind that asking for help is a two-way street!  Here’s how you start!

1. Identify the problem 

The only way to solve a problem is to know what is the problem.  If you can not pinpoint what’s the problem, then it will be difficult to find the best fitting solution.  While asking your “expert,” always keep the problem in mind.

2. Acknowledge you don’t know the subject.

It sounds easy but it is not at all.  When I had my inflated ego, it made me less receptive to new ideas and ignorant of the problem.  My mind would find ways to deny that I don’t know about the subject and would make up things for what it’s lacking.  Don’t you find yourself making up weird explanations when you can’t answer a question?  Exactly.  If you can catch yourself before your mind makes up excuses or explanations for you, you find out what you don’t know.  As a result, you will be more open to novel ideas from others.

3. Be curious

Once you know the problem, and be open to new ideas from other people, you should definitely crank up your curiosity.  Think like a kid, question things that your mind draws blank lines to which you can’t answer.  Once the first few questions pop up in your mind, several more will surely follow, I promise.  😀  As your “expert” answers your questions, create different paths with the stones given to you.  By doing so, your creativity will help you find the best solution to your problem.

4.  Know your “expert”   

Definition: “expert” – The person who may or may not have all the answers. Be nice to him/her

Hmmm, how many times have we been frustrated or confused when our teachers gave us the wrong answer or pointless answers to our questions?  Many times!  If you know your “expert,” you should definitely phrase your questions in a way that he or she can understand what you are asking.  If the person does not understand your questions, it will be difficult to get anywhere with the information given to you.  Be flexible, rephrase questions for when the questions are not clear or concise enough.  I find that if the questions are not clear, I give examples and definitions to give alternative ways to help the “expert” understand my problem.

5. Be patient and grateful

Being patient with your “expert” is very important.  If it takes you a while to understand your problem and phrasing your questions, it does take the person you are asking, some time to be in the same context as you.  Being patient is beneficial for both people because there’s less stress between you two, therefore, he or she will likely be able to think and answer your questions precisely.  Think about it, if I rudely ask you a question and I ask you to give me the answer QUICK! You may end up ignoring me!  I will be even more stressed and annoyed!  Don’t forget to be grateful that he or she is taking time out of his or her busy or not-so-busy schedule to help you.  Regardless whether the information he or she provides is useful to you or not, always thank him or her. Don’t burn bridges by insulting him or her if your “expert” is not useful to you…yet!

6. Return the favor

Most of the time, people do not expect you to return the favor when they helped you out.  However, helping the other person is a mutual relationship.  Although you are not of any help to your “expert” now, later on, he or she can ask for that favor from you.  I always try to return the favor as soon as possible because that way, I don’t forget, and it shows that I’m eager to help, when I can.

These six steps have helped me many times and I believe I no longer have that silly inflated ego anymore (hopefully.)  I’m more humble because I can readily admit I do not know certain subjects and I’m not afraid to ask.  I make sure there’s always a reason to my questions, and I try to make good use of the answers given to me.  Most of the time, I guide my “expert” with my questions, this allows me to keep the goal in sight.  I hope this is helpful to you!

***Side story:  What’s sweet was that my arch enemy had a crush on me so he was always happy to help me.  He asked me out one time and I didn’t really understand what “going out” was, so I told him I had to work on math homework.  What’s sour was that my house got egged later that week.  You do the math.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt

A few days ago, I volunteered to help out at a math competition event.  It was so much fun to watch the middle school students compete.  During the “showdown,” I watched as the questions go up for less than two seconds and one of the contestant answered it so swiftly.  It was amazing to see how fast these kids can do their calculations!!  For me, I got a chance to work behind the scenes by grading and scoring their math problems.  Since I was a newbie, they asked me to partner up with the older man, who apparently, worked as a camera man as well.  He guided me through how to do the grading and so on.

Since I have great interests in cameras and photography, I figured it would be best to ask someone like him.  I was not sure if I was being too sensitive to what he’s saying but I’d let you decide on that.  I asked him about his camera, he explained some stuff, then I went into more questions about aperture, exposure, sepia, and film developments.  He got to the point where he explained that exposure is when one left the film out and allowed the photons to hit the film for certain amount of time.  When I got a bit confused in my attempt to picture what he’s talking about, he asked,

“So what did you studied in college?”

I shyly replied, “Computer Engineering.”

Right then, he’s said, “An engineer like yourself, don’t you remember about photons and what they do and such?”  Or, “didn’t you study about black bodies and lights in physics?”  At that moment, I felt so inferior to him.  I didn’t understand why though.  I felt so ashamed of who I am for the fact that I’m an engineer.  He’s right, shouldn’t I know??  I turned into a rock, and I began to sink farther and farther into the quicksand.

Then, I questioned myself, why was I feeling this way?  I studied way too hard to graduate as a computer engineer.  In college, I studied along with my other classmates, 80% of which are men.  I graduated with “Magna Cum Laude.”  Why should I be ashamed of who I am?  Even if I didn’t remember about physics, it didn’t mean I’m incapable of learning it, or understanding about photography.  I learned a long time ago that it’s useless to get angry and lose myself in the middle of it.  So, to get out of this hole, I reversed my situation and accepted him comment.  I let him pass a few more of his sly comments, and I continued to politely ask him more questions about photography.  Eventually, his comments stopped hinting about me being an engineer and he became engrossed in his own topic.

Just to clarify, being an engineer does not make me any better than any other person.  My skills and what I learned are specific to certain application, one cannot blindly clump them together and expect that I am an expert on physics or other matters.  I can program you a really awesome webpage, or write you some kick-ass Android apps if I wanted.  Everyone’s good at something, not at EVERYTHING.

But seriously, what happened next, I amazed myself.  I just took control of the situation, and made it beneficial to me.  Regardless of what he said after that, I refused to let him make me feel inferior to his “photography” knowledge, instead, I turned myself into his student.  I continued to ask more and more questions because I wanted to know more about photography.  I didn’t care if he thought lowly of me, I was a stranger to him and vice versa.  As a result of that day, I walked away feeling good because I had volunteered, and as a bonus, I gained a lot of knowledge about cameras, and film development.

I learn that it’s smarter to act “dumb,” and gain knowledge from others, than act smart and learn nothing.  Also, you should never feel inferior to another person just because he/she knows more specific information about a certain topic.  There are other things you are good at, that he/she isn’t.  So why let her/him make you feel bad?

Be proud of who you are.  I’m often afraid to admit to people I’m a computer engineer because they would either make sly remarks to make me feel bad or compliment that I worked hard to become an engineer.  It’s one or the other.  I’m still struggling to not let others’ comments affect me negatively.  My trick is to turn the situation around and just become a curious person.  Ask lots of questions!!  If he/she makes you feel inferior because he/she feels greater than you, then, tell him/her to go ahead, take the stage and answer all your questions.  Say,

“I want to learn.  Give me all that you know.”

In the end, tell me, who benefits from this?  You or him?