The Art of Asking


A few years ago I broke my elbow. Over the weeks of healing I was a pretty difficult person to live with (sorry husband). It wasn’t the pain that prompted me to stop behaving like my usual (vaguely) reasonable self; it was the loss of my independence. I, like so many people, struggled to ask for help.

In light of this character flaw, it is unsurprising that reading Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, prompted me to fill pages of my journal with notes, challenges, musings… Part manifesto, part memoir, the book advocates a lifestyle of asking for help and illustrates, through Amanda’s own experiences, the kind of joyful, freeing, community-based living this can create. The context is art, but the application is universal. Amanda* challenges the false yet prevailing idea that to ask for help is to admit to failure. She champions not ‘Do it yourself’ but ‘Use what you can’ – including the resources that your sphere of influence has to offer. Today’s society may favour self-sufficiency, but in doing so it misses the opportunities that, on a basic level meet individuals’ immediate needs and, on a deeper one, foster openness and collaboration.

Thinking back to those broken-elbowed months when I took up people’s offers of lifts, prayers and practical support, my experience mirrored Amanda’s: people genuinely wanted to help, despite any inconvenience involved. Knowing that removes a sense of fear of asking; we are not risking our reputation, pride, heart…We can and should have a basic assumption that people are on our side. In that context, we can unapologetically ask for help when we seek it.

When I was forced by circumstances allowed myself to be dependent on others, I found not only help, but community. I can look back at that period and see that it was a transitional time in some friendships. Amanda talks about how asking for help isn’t taking, it’s a beautiful exchange, a connection between people. Reflecting on this now, I am not surprised that deeper friendships were forged when I traded pleasantries for honesty and vulnerability. My prized and prideful independence I now value far less than community living. I wrote previously about what we have to offer our neighbours; I’m also advocating we learn to ask for ourselves too.

I’ve also been musing recently on a different type of asking that fosters community too: the asking of questions. A curiosity about the lives of others that delves below the ‘how has your week been?’ to understanding how that made you feel, and why. I’ve noticed in myself, and sometimes in others, a propensity to quickly empathise with people when they’re sharing an experience, a struggle, a heartache. This comes from a good place – a desire to affirm and reassure them that they’re not alone, but I think that it risks two things.

One, it denies them the opportunity to vocalise their internal world for themselves and experience the associated catharsis. I fear that in my eagerness to stand in solidarity with someone, I may have shut up their voice.

Two, I may be taking that person down an emotional cul-de-sac. From their starting point, it may seem like the right direction, but just because it is how I might feel about something doesn’t mean it’s the same for them. The experiences might be similar but the response will be entirely individual. Instead of quickly empathising, I’m challenged to allow people to speak for themselves, to ask questions that give them permission to share, and scrape away superficial niceties to find the rawness underneath. It doesn’t need to look pretty; the important thing is that it’s real for them.

My heart in all of this is that we should understand each other better. When I shared at a breakfast event recently about social action numerous people came to me afterwards and expressed sentiments like “now I understand you” and “I feel like you just shared your heart with us”. But we don’t always have a platform like that to share our values, zeal, or pain with people. Recognising that, through the simple art of asking questions we can begin to make space for it.

This isn’t just for our offline relationships. If you want to share it, I’m listening. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What hurts? What’s in your heart?the_art_of_asking_how_are_you

*This may seem like a liberty, but she feels like a first name terms kind of person. Read her book; you’ll see what I mean. If you can’t wait to get your hands on her book, check out her brilliant TED talk on the same topic. She is a brilliant, engaging communicator; both are worth delving into.

Today’s soundtrack: Amanda Palmer // Who killed Amanda Palmer

(Well, it couldn’t really be anyone else…I also enjoyed listening to ‘An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’ but it was far too distracting to write to.)

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