A friend recently asked, “When is the right time to ask for help?”
I learned the answer — and three keys to asking — thirty years ago standing by the popcorn machine at The Ground Round restaurant on a hot summer Friday night.
We had a line out the door. The place was loud. And my section just got triple-sat. That means all three open tables just got seated at the same time. It’s not fun for the guests or the server. It’s downright terrifying when it’s your first shift on a Friday night.
While this was my first Friday-night shift, I earned it working lunches and non-busy nights by proving I was strong enough to carry my tables without needing help.
Or so I thought.
The building is long gone, but the lesson I learned that night is permanently part of my being: real strength is knowing when and how to ask for help.
As I was scooping up the popcorn to bring to each table, one of the stronger servers took me aside. She told me to take a breath. Then she explained in her blunt fashion that the key to a successful Friday night was to ask for help when we were ‘in the weeds’ and offer help when we had a moment. She made it clear that I needed to ask for help and was expected to offer help when and if I could.
With my mind on greeting and managing three guests at once, she told took two baskets of popcorn from my tray. She told me to focus on one table and she’d help with the other two.
What happened next is a bit of a blur.
In the time it took me to greet the first table and get drink orders, she handled the other two. When I got back to the serving station, she and another server were filling cups with ice and pouring sodas. All three tables got their drinks at the same time.
Together, we made sure those guests were taken care of and felt welcomed. Their help made the evening a success.
With a mix of gratitude and guilt for the help, I thanked them. They detected the guilt and quickly corrected me that the reason I earned the Friday night shift is that I was a strong server. Part of being a strong server is knowing when and how to ask for help.
It takes three things to demonstrate strength when asking for help
The strongest servers got that way by asking for help. In turn, they offered help. They knew that the success of one of us benefitted all of us. My guests today could be your guests next week. But only if they had a great time and decided to come back.
It takes three things to ask for help:
- Awareness of yourself and your situation
- A request for something specific
- The graciousness to accept the help once you’ve asked for it
Awareness of yourself and situation
When you get triple-sat, it’s easy to know you need help. Sometimes you fall behind because a table takes a bit longer to order. Maybe you’re busy providing a great experience to one guest as another needs a refill. Or a whole table needs a refill. It takes practice to learn when you’re getting overwhelmed and need help.
As you learn to recognize the signs in yourself, you tend to see them in others. Anticipating needs is not only helpful for those we serve, but it’s a great opportunity for leaders to elevate their teams.
When you ask for help, ask for something specific
The key to asking for help is specificity. In the restaurants, you have a sense of the timing of each of the tables. You might ask for help with running food. Maybe you need a new table greeted before you get can to them.
Just asking for help doesn’t cut it.
The more specific your request, the more likely you’ll get helped.
A clear, specific request gives the person you ask the chance to consider if and how they can help. If they can, great. If not, then you find out right away and can ask someone else.
Be gracious and accept the help you asked for
My approach for new tables after welcoming them and introducing myself was to either list specials or suggest something to ‘get them started.’ I still bristle when a server walks up and asks, “what are you drinking?”
Aside from the fact that it’s tacky, it misses a lot of opportunities — both to craft a great dining experience and make more money from the tips on a bigger check.
When you ask for help, you accept the help you get.
Even if that means the table gets a tired standard “Michael will be right over. What can I get you started with?” (I bet you just read that with the same voice and tone you’ve heard a hundred times — you know what I’m talking about).
What was the other option?
They sit there, neglected. Unless they worked in the restaurant business, they might not understand. If they had the experience, they still might be upset. No one is happy if they feel ignored and start doubting their choice of venue.
It’s the same way when we ask for help (or delegate). Even 75% of what we’d do is better than our current capability to do nothing.
Bonus: the success of one is the success of all (or learn to anticipate needs)
We all understood that our individual success contributed to the success of the team. The offer of help was not a judgment. Asking for help was not a sign of weakness. If anything, not asking for help was considered selfish and weak!
In the restaurant business, we learned to proactively offer to help each other. Because we knew what we were experiencing, it got easier to see the signs when someone else needed help. That extended into the kitchen, too. Whatever we could do to help each other was encouraged and welcomed. Not to mention the amazing power of cross-training.
The key is we’d always start by asking.
We’d ask if we could help with something specific: running food, greeting a table, getting refills. Most times, we accepted help. After all, if someone was asking we probably needed it.
This way none of us got overwhelmed and our guests got a better experience.
Asking for help is the real sign of strength
Waiting tables taught me asking for help isn’t a weakness.
Real strength is knowing when and how to ask for help — and then accepting it.
While you might not be waiting tables, can you afford for those you serve to not come back? Or do you want a strong team that knows when and how to ask for help — making sure that everyone has a better experience?
Don’t wait. Stop telling yourself that you are expected to figure it out all by yourself. I made that mistake. I learned the best time to ask for help is when you need it.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, demonstrate your real strength and ask!