The Art Of Asking

theartofasking_imageFollowing on from last week’s blog post, I’ve been reflecting on the art of asking, why it can be so difficult, and how to make it easier.

I used to find it difficult to ask for help. I am naturally independent, and grew up on second-wave feminism which preached self-reliance. Asking can be hard because it’s a risk: you’re making yourself vulnerable, exposing your wishes or your needs, and the person you are asking might say ‘no’. You could experience that ‘no’ as a rejection or a slap in the face, as derogatory to your very being in the world. Alternatively, you could reflect that nothing major has changed, you’re still in the same position you were in before, and you have lost nothing. Or you could land up somewhere in between.

Asking can be easier in professional than personal contexts. Asking a librarian to help you track down a book, or the IT support desk to help you solve a techie problem, should be stress-free. You’re entitled to ask and it’s their job to help. But when you’re an indie researcher, those organisational networks of obligation don’t exist. So asking for things in professional contexts can be weird, even paralysing: why would anyone want to help me? Why would anyone be willing to put themselves out on my behalf?

I found myself on a steep learning curve in asking when I developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple of years ago and needed help with opening jars and bottles, moving furniture, doing DIY etc. The writer Laura James expresses the necessity of this eloquently and, like her, I have become shameless about asking for help. This has probably helped me learn to ask in other areas. Amanda Palmer’s wonderful book also provided a timely shove in the right direction.

I’ve learned other things as a result of learning to ask for help. For example, some people are incredibly helpful. Professor Rosalind Edwards is one of these people. I met Ros at a conference in Leicester in early 2014 (which, incidentally, I got to go to because I asked, on Twitter). The previous week I’d been to a meeting at the British Library, where I’m on an advisory panel for the Social Welfare Portal, and Ros’s name was mentioned as someone we could ask for help with publicity through her role as Co-Director of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). So when I realised she was at the conference, I went to ask her for help on behalf of the Portal, and found out that she’s warm and helpful and funny. We chatted on Twitter in the weeks and months following the conference. Another kind and helpful person, Kandy Woodfield, invited me to be on a panel at the 2014 Research Methods Festival, which Ros helps to organise, so we met again then and had a lovely chat on a bench in the sunshine.

A couple of months ago I decided that I would really like to be a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. I had a look online, but couldn’t find evidence of any opportunities. So I asked Ros. She said NCRM didn’t have visiting fellows, but they’d been thinking about whether to start. I said was there any chance they could start with me? She went away and talked to the other directors, and they said ‘yes’.

They said ‘yes’!

So as from this very day, I am a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. Because I asked. I wouldn’t be one, otherwise.

Another incredibly helpful person, Gemma Noon, is currently Impact Evaluation lead at Calgary Public Library. I met her online in the noughties, we met in person once before she emigrated from the UK, and we’ve kept in touch. She stunned me by inviting me to give a keynote in Canada, all expenses paid – my first international speaking engagement! I didn’t even ask! But I did ask Gemma whether she had any contacts with local universities, and she put me in touch with Carol Shepstone at Mount Royal University, and I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for them while I was in the area, and she said ‘yes’. Then, at the creative research methods conference a couple of months ago, I saw Barbara Schneider present her excellent research. Barbara works at the University of Calgary, so I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for her while I was in the area – and she said ‘yes’. So in late October I’m off to Canada, to work for the library service and two universities in Calgary.

They said ‘yes’!

Some of this, of course, is sheer luck, and being in the right place at the right time. And there is an old saying: ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, and I do work hard, so I figured that was the other influencing factor. I sent Ros a draft of this post, as a courtesy because it features her, and she told me firmly that my analysis was incomplete. She wrote,blush

“Of course, we don’t just give out fellowships because we get asked, and I bet you wouldn’t be invited to Calgary if it wasn’t because people think you are rather good at this research thing. You miss that bit of the story!”


Even so, if I hadn’t asked for help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m also finding that the more I practice asking, the easier it becomes. I now regularly ask people for help: old friends and new, professional contacts, random strangers on Twitter. Of course they don’t all say ‘yes’ – but a surprisingly large number of people are able and willing to help.

If the prospect of asking repels you, ask yourself this: how do you respond when someone asks you for help? Are you generally willing to help others? I bet you are; it probably makes you feel good. And if that’s the case, why aren’t you willing to give other people that feel-good sensation by asking them for help in turn? Go on, give it a try – the results can be surprising and delightful.

2 thoughts on “The Art Of Asking

  1. A great article Helen. “I used to find it difficult to ask for help.” I can relate to this a few decades ago I attended a seminar about this very issue “Help Me I’m a Helper” given by Howard Sasportas at Regents College London, it changed my life and gave me valuable insight into the dynamics between the helper and the helped. A “healthy” helper has to recognise and honour their own needs by learning “the art of asking” it’s not an easy archetype for some of us but it can be highly rewarding and inspiring.


  2. Wow, this has led you in some nice directions and outcomes. Odd, but I find this to be so difficult to do. Something simpler, such as asking for an email to be forwarded or the like, but I am not quite sure I would be able to bring myself to ask as you have. Something about acknowledging a want and promoting myself around filling that . . . I have to think more about this, though cannot envision being able to do so.


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