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For me, this is a minor epiphany. The phrases I've always associated with asking for help are passwords of pathos: "Please, sir, I want some more." "Would you mind...?" "If it's not too much trouble..." These supplications ooze helplessness and mark the moment we turn over control to someone else. The word how is different. It's an active term, one that bridges the gap from powerless to empowered. I use it right away. "How," I say, "do I help people ask for help?"

And just like that, Dorothy helps me figure it out. Here's the strategy that emerges from her kind assistance.

Get Help (A Primer)


1. Frame all your problems as how-to questions.
Simply begging for aid when you feel overwhelmed is likely to make honest folks back away, while exploiters smell blood in the water. Instead, you might do better to phrase all your problems as "how" questions: "How do I break through the glass ceiling in this company?" "How should I go about changing this flat tire?" "How can I help cure AIDS?" Whether your problem is tiny or monumental, asking "How...?" means you're a capable person in the process of becoming even more capable—not a charity case or a manipulator's mark.

2. Locate sources of information and insight.
The more specific your how-to questions, the more quickly they'll lead to useful strategies or solutions from individuals, books, TV shows, Web sites, and a thousand sources you won't even notice until your attention is primed. The more actively you pursue the knowledge and skills to extricate yourself from a mess, the more new sources you'll locate. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (among others) has pointed out, the accessibility of information has exploded so dramatically over the past few decades that humble individuals can now solve problems and perform feats once reserved for a few elite experts.

3. Take fishing lessons.
To paraphrase the adage: If you wheedle a fish from someone, you'll eat for a day; if you wheedle advice from a great fisherman, you'll eat for a lifetime. The key here is that you're soliciting help that won't diminish the resources of the other person. Each person's supply of "fish" (funding, energy, time) is limited, but fishing know-how can be replicated infinitely, at negligible cost. Even if you're going with a money problem to your filthy-rich uncle, ask for education, not a handout. "Please give me money" is a self-disempowering request. "Please show me how to resolve this financial muddle" is a self-empowering one, even if Uncle Buckmeister also pitches in with a cash donation (which he's much more likely to do for a determined problem-solver than a simple beggar).

4. Receive with gratitude, not grasping.
If you honestly set out to learn how to untangle your own snafus, you'll find that even people who shy away from raw neediness start offering advice. Whether you've asked for it or not, help that's given freely is part of grace, meaning that the only response necessary to satisfy the norm of reciprocity is gratitude. And what I mean by gratitude is not "Thanks...and what else can you do for me?" Grasping at help like a drowning swimmer tends to scare away the resources you've already got, as well as potential assistance.

5. Pay it forward.
Once you start pushing the limitations of your own abilities and learning to solve your own dilemmas, you'll find that many people like Dorothy Williams at the NICU are actually out there looking for you, wanting to be of use to you. You're going to end up receiving support both material and intangible, much of which you couldn't repay if you wanted to (who could pay back the gifts of a great teacher?).

At this point, the norm of reciprocity will express itself in you as a spontaneous desire (not obligation) to help others. You'll come to understand that asking for aid doesn't need to be dangerous. By playing an active part in your own deliverance, you'll get the most helpful thing of all: the realization that anyone—angry spouse, lost pet, struggling novelist, tiny newborn, grieving parent, or you at your very worst—is always well within the reach of grace.

Martha Beck is the author of Leaving the Saints and The Joy Diet (both Crown).

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