PSA: How to (Not) Ask for Help

Posted on March 9, 2021

Even if many people have been working from home for almost a year sometimes we can all use a refresher on appropriate ways to request help from others in asynchronous communications channels. This is broadly applicable to work, event organizing, volunteer groups, etc.

DON’T stop at ‘Hi’ or ‘Can you help with something?’

Messaging someone for help but not including what you need help with in the first message is not respectful of their time. The person receiving the message may be juggling multiple issues at once, walking their dog, commuting, etc. It’s mutually beneficial to get straight to the point so that your issue can be addressed quickly and they are not waiting around for the actual question.

DON’T use direct messages

If multiple people may be able to answer your question use an appropriate channel for that. Again, this is mutually beneficial. This isn’t putting a specific person on the hook to deal with your issue plus it increases visibility to the issue you are having.

DON’T skip documented process

Make sure to use the appropriate channels for interacting with the person or group. If they specifically request all help requests go through a specific channel or email group make sure to follow their lead. It’s a pain being on the receiving end of someone asking for things via side channels.

DON’T leave out context

Context is important. Remember to include both the context you think is important in the initial help request and the context that is expected from you when you are asking for help. If you message someone saying “Help, this door is stuck, please help!” they’ll need to know where you are and what door is stuck.

Likewise, if the person you messaged sends you a series of questions so they can get up to speed, don’t expect help until you fill in all the blanks.

DON’T cry wolf

Don’t be the person who acts like every one of your problems is incredibly urgent, especially if you can’t be bothered filling in context. It may be urgent to you, but if the person on the other end doesn’t even know what’s going on it’s not going to be urgent for them, especially if this happens more than once.

DON’T tell someone to get details in a call

If a problem is not urgent enough to warrant a direct phone call then it is absolutely not urgent enough to message someone to just tell them to get in a conference call. If there is already an ongoing conference call that they should join make sure they can easily access that call but include context in the message. It’s easier to get up to speed if the problem has been formally written than by derailing an ongoing conversation just to ask to catch up. This helps everyone involved.

DON’T at people at during their off hours

Most people don’t want to have their personal time interrupted, especially by something that can wait. A lot of us don’t turn on Do Not Disturb during their entire off hours though, just in case something urgent comes up. Be careful about ating folks outside of their typical work / participation time.

This can be a little tricky for organizations outside of the office. Folks frequently have different schedules and different times when they are likely to want to respond. This may require reading the room a bit. My go to move is to use their name in the message but not ating them, but each situation may be a little different.

Chat Etiquette

Etiquette and being polite is much more than social niceties. A key element is being respectful of others and their time. Just remember to be kind, polite, and that every other person on the planet has their own life with their own busy schedules and you should be fine.