Sometimes you’re asked to do a task and you don’t fully understand what you need to do. Perhaps your manager did explain it to you but he/she just wasn’t very clear and you’re still confused. Should you go ahead and do the task as best as you are able even if you’re not really clear what is needed? What will happen if you get it wrong?

It’s actually much better to ask for clarity before you start. Quite often the person who gives you the task doesn’t really think about the fact that you’ve never done this before and their explanation really isn’t good enough. So how do you go about asking for clarity?

We are all scared of asking for help. We think others will see us as incompetent and it feels like a risky thing to do. The latest neuroscience and psychology research shows that the pain we feel when we ask for help is very similar to the sensation of physical pain! But it’s impossible to work in organisations in the 21st century without asking for help. Our modern work environment often means that we need to be adaptable and be able to learn to do many different tasks. So, we’re all going to need to ask questions about the work we do. Your manager would also much prefer that you ask for help rather than give them the wrong information.

If the task is given to a group of you at a meeting, you can ask questions at the time. If you are still struggling to understand and it is taking too much time from the meeting ask your manager if you could meet him/her individually after the meeting for more information. You could also ask someone on the team to help you if they have done the task before.

Make a suitable time to see you manager/colleague and prepare beforehand. Have a look at the task you’ve been given and decide what you do understand and what still confuses you. Think about the specific questions you need to ask to be clear about the task. For example, you could ask, ‘How do I access the data you need me to capture?’ or ‘Who would be the best people to contact?’ This means that when you ask for clarity you already know what you don’t know and can ask for specific help!

If the whole task is unclear ask for a full explanation and make notes as you go. Making notes of tasks and the explanations given is extremely useful. It means that when you are working alone doing the task you have easy access to all the information that was given to you. It helps to write step by step instructions for the task if it has multiple different actions. Our minds are so full of all sorts of information and so it often can’t retain all the information we might have been told.

Writing a list of immediate actions that include a direct action is helpful. For example: You need to fill in a spreadsheet with data from your customers. So these would be your immediate actions:

• List the 5 customers you need to contact.
• Email each of these customers for the information.
• Give them the date you need this information by in your email.
• Email any customers who have not yet sent you that information on the due date.
• Phone customers if there is still no response.
• Capture the data in the spreadsheet by the date given to you by your manager.
• Let your manager know the task is completed.

If any of the steps that you need to complete are unclear, you can pinpoint exactly what you don’t know and ask for help. This shows that you haven’t been lazy about doing the task. You have spent time on what needs to be done and you are only asking for help with specific aspects that you don’t understand. It also saves the person helping you time because your questions aren’t vague, they’re specific.

When someone demonstrates how you should do a task, for example, fill in a spreadsheet, watch closely as they work and, again, make notes if you need too. Watching closely shows that you’re engaged and do want to remember how to do the task yourself next time. Ask as many questions as you need to the first time round so that you understand exactly what you need to do the next time. Your helper also wants to know that their help has been effective so, when you can do it the next time, they will feel even better about having helped you!

If someone helps you with understanding a task, always be available to help them when they are struggling with something. This means that your work space becomes a co-operative space and everyone supports each other. Always thank the person for helping you and, if they are part of your team, it’s good to acknowledge their help to your manager and team. After all, humans love to feel that they belong to a team and helping each other is an essential part of this.

Don’t forget, though, that sometimes people are not the only resource available for asking for help. The internet is available to help you too. There are masses of resources on the internet. All you have to do is search, ‘How to capture data in an excel spreadsheet’ and you will find step by step instructions!

People are actually much more prepared to help than we often thing they are. Once you’ve got over the fear of asking for help, realising that others are happy to help makes it so much easier to do. Very few people will think less of you for needing assistance. And, in asking for help, you can make someone feel good about himself or herself. It brings out the best in all of us.

Tell us: have you ever struggled to ask for help? Will this advice help you?