4 Hesitations When Asking for Help and How to Overcome Them

At the beginning of my apprenticeship at 8th Light, I read Apprenticeship Patterns by Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye. In chapter two of the book, the authors discuss the importance of exposing and confronting your ignorance. It’s inevitable that we all have our areas of ignorance, and the most effective way to combat these deficiencies is by exposing them through asking questions. While exposing our ignorance, we also expose our learning ability.

These ideas really resonate with me. However, knowing full well how important it is to ask for help, there are instances where I am still not quite comfortable reaching out to others for various reasons. I have identified a few reasons why I hesitate:

I should know this already.

Asking questions about an advanced topic or things I have little experience with feels justifiable and I am pretty good with that. But I hesitate to ask when I have questions about tools I have been working with for a while or terminology that seems to be common knowledge in my profession. There is a voice in my head that whispers, "You should know this by now!"

I've developed a strategy to cope with this particular issue of mine. I've identified a small group of people with whom my comfort level is higher than average (trusted mentors, fellow apprentices, etc.). These are my go-to people whom I am comfortable asking the most absurd questions. These folks not only provide the help I need but also make me feel comfortable and not so silly about the questions I might be asking.

I don't want to slow down the group by asking too many questions in a workshop or a class.

I met a developer at an Elixir training workshop I recently attended. Everyone asked questions, but this developer in particular asked a lot of questions, more than the rest of us combined. I was glad he asked really good questions, many of which I did not think of. However, during our break, he also apologized to the class if his many questions slowed down the pace for anyone who knew the material better than he did. This prompted me to tell him that I learned a lot from his questions and I really appreciated him asking them.

I understand the feeling of being the “slow” person. I tend to ask fewer questions in a group setting for fear of slowing down others. Sometimes, I would try to catch the instructor after class and ask my questions in private. That is one way to overcome any hesitation caused by the group setting and still get help. However, a great bonus of asking questions in a group is that everyone in the group can get the answer. I have had at least a few instances where I thought I knew the answer to a question but turned out I did not. Thanks to someone else exposing their ignorance, I was able to correct my own.

Asking questions in a group is a lot like collaboration—everyone brings something different to the table. It helps us think of the problem from different point of views. Although the developer in the conference I attended was new to Elixir, he asked very good questions due to his deep knowledge in other programming languages. By exposing his ignorance in front of the group, not only did he help himself, but he also helped me and probably many other fellow participants.

Lately, if I have a question, I try to ask in front of the group rather than save it for a one-on-one. And if someone asks a lot of good questions in a group setting, I would make sure to let them know that they have helped me too.

I don't want to bother other developers.

Sometimes I start my question with an apology: "Sorry to bug you again, but please help me with [...]". I really needed help, but I also felt bad taking someone's time.

Every apprentice at 8th Light has the opportunity to pair with crafters on client projects. During my apprenticeship I would often be hesitant to pair with a senior crafter on a code base I was not familiar with. I was concerned that I would not be able to understand much and would only end up being a drag on the crafter's time. However, the crafters I paired with during my apprenticeship told me to approach the pairing tour not only to learn but also to offer a fresh pair of eyes to the code base being worked on. There were always benefits to be reaped by having someone else look at your code.

One of the best ways to learn something or solidify our understanding of a concept is to teach it to others. Being able to explain something well to someone is proof that we really understand the concept. That's why asking questions not only helps us but also helps the "expert" to solidify their knowledge and look at the problem in a different way. It's a win-win situation.

I want to figure this out on my own.

I've been advised that I should ask for help after struggling for 30 minutes. It's good advice, but I don't always honor that time limit. It is a wonderful feeling to figure out something on your own. Because of this I sometimes postpone reaching out for assistance. However, I have observed that people with more experience tend to ask for help more often because they find it more productive. These days, knowledge is everywhere. We really can find the answer to almost anything if we know how to ‘google’ it. Sometimes the only difference between Google and a real person is the amount of time it takes for me to get the answer. There are times when I still need to rely on Google. But if I know there is a real person who can help me save a lot of time, I probably will reach out.

Conclusion

  • Do you hesitate to ask for help because you are asking "a stupid question"? Identify a trusted mentor or colleague who you are most comfortable asking anything.

  • Do you hesitate to ask a question in a group for fear of slowing down other people? People benefit from your questions in ways you might not anticipate. Your questions might bring a unique perspective or correct any misconception.

  • Do you hesitate to ask for help because you feel bad bothering someone else? Assisting you will help the 'expert' solidify their knowledge and look at the problem in a different way. It's a win-win situation.

  • Do you hesitate to ask for help because you want to do it yourself? Getting assistance from your peers doesn’t mean you did not do the work, and it can help you save a lot of time.

When asking for help, be specific and provide context (i.e., describe the problem, describe the error, describe what you have tried so far). Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Ask a question knowing that the other person might not be able to help (i.e., they do not have the answer or they do not have the time right now). As long as we remember to ask for help with respect and empathy, we are safe to follow the 30 minutes rule—if you are stuck for 30 minutes, reach out to someone for help!

According to a study published by Management Science:

“seeking advice can profoundly influence perceptions of competence, but not in the way people expect. Contrary to conventional wisdom and lay beliefs, we find that asking for advice increases perceptions of competence.”

Just like the developer I met at the Elixir workshop, people who take the opportunity to learn from others, and in turn add to the collective pool of wisdom of a group, are viewed in high regard. I appreciated being able to maximize what I was able to learn during that session through his thoughtful inquiries.

When operating within a modern organization, it’s nearly impossible to advance without assistance from others. Taking advantage of cross-functional teams and collaborative office cultures could be key on finding the best solution to your task or project.

Tam Dao, Software Crafter

Tam Dao is a software crafter by day at 8th Light Chicago and a ballet dancer by night, mainly at her dance studio but also in her living room.

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