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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Uh Oh: The Way You Ask for Help Might Actually Be Ruining Your Relationships

Whether it’s for finding a job or succeeding in your current role, one of the major pieces of career advice is to tap into your network for guidance and assistance. However, what happens if you reach out to these professional contacts and they don’t help you out—or even respond to your messages?

You might not know it, but you could be making a couple of big mistakes that are turning off your network to helping you. Like these.

1. Making Your Ask Too General or Too Big

I was recently put in an incredibly awkward situation when a friend of mine reached out and asked me to find a friend of hers (one, mind you, I didn’t know at all) a job.

There are two major problems with this ask. First of all, it’s incredibly general. There’s a lot involved with “finding a job”—I wouldn’t even know where to start, and I certainly wouldn’t have time to help her at every step along the way.

This contributes to the second problem: It’s a gigantic ask that would require a lot of time and social capital. Not only would I not gain anything professionally from helping a person I don’t know find a job, but I’d also find myself in trouble if she turned out to be a terrible employee (since I couldn’t personally vouch for her professionalism or work ethic).

A good way to avoid both of these problems is to make your ask as specific as possible, and make sure it’s something that would constitute one small to-do list item. So, instead of “Can you help me get a job?” try, “Can you introduce me to your friend who works at [dream company]?” or “Can you look over my resume and give me some feedback?” Your contacts can quickly assess how much time and effort these asks will take them, making it much more likely they will agree to them.

In short, be extremely conscious of your professional contacts’ time and reputations. If people feel like you’re asking for too much, they may politely say “no” (or just flat-out ignore you).

Oh, and keep your friends out of it: It can come off a bit presumptuous to assume that your network is willing to help people they’re not acquainted with.

2. Thinking You’re Closer With Contacts Than You Actually Are

Just because you had a nice email exchange with someone once doesn’t mean that you two are best friends and you can ask that person for favors all willy-nilly. Asking your contacts for too much, too quickly can make them feel like it’s a fake relationship, like you’re just using them for professional advancement. And who wants to help a person like that?

If you’re trying to decide if you’re close enough with a contact to ask for a favor, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Have you known this person more than a year?
  • Have you interacted both online and in person at least four or five times over the past year?
  • Have you interacted with this person one-on-one (not just in a group networking setting) during the past six months?
  • Have you consulted this person about your career before?
  • Have you done a favor for this person before (or is there something you can offer to do)?
  • Have you been in touch with this person in the past two months?

If you’re looking at these questions and realize that most of your answers are “no,” you may be making the mistake of asking him or her for way too much, way too quickly. Instead of asking for the favor or a big introduction, asking for some advice would be a better step. It’s a much easier and more appropriate way to start building a relationship with someone.

3. Sending Way Too Many Requests for Help

Everyone needs help from time to time, but you shouldn’t be emailing your network once a week asking for help on a project, a networking opportunity, or career advice. After a while, constant requests make people feel weary of helping you.

While there’s no hard and fast rule on how often you should be reaching out to your professional network for help (after all, that depends on your individual relationships), the general thing to consider is that the better you know this person, the more they’ll put up with helping you out. Still, even for close contacts, try not to make more than one ask a quarter, and for most professional contacts you don’t see on a daily or weekly basis, aim for no more than a couple of times per year.

And—most importantly—make sure you return the favor whenever possible! For example, if a contact emails you requesting an introduction or asking for your expertise, send a message back promptly agreeing to help. Also, don’t underestimate the power of doing little favors for someone after he or she did you a huge one—those little acts of kindness add up!

It’s easy to get caught up in your career and approach your network with all sorts of large or difficult demands. But if you keep in mind that professional contacts are still people with their own reputations and lives to consider, you’ll be able to approach them with more perspective (and have a better chance of getting some help!).

Photo of contact file courtesy of Shutterstock.