Ask for Help Without Stressing Others

January 5, 2021

Ask for Help Without Stressing Others

Stress is a formidable force. Oftentimes, it is bigger than us, and we need to enlist the help of others to keep stress at bay. But it’s challenging to ask for help without spreading our stress levels to others. A trusted other can help us regain control of our emotions and think more clearly. If you’ve ever confided in a colleague or friend about a bad day, you know that letting your concerns and worries out can be a solution in itself, leaving you calmer and more clear-eyed about the situation at hand.

The next time you want to blow off steam without stressing out your closest confidants—or escalating your own stress—keep these six strategies in mind.

1. Is now a good time?

I have a close colleague whom I turn to whenever my emotions feel overwhelming. Occasionally, I’m so eager to launch into a detailed description of everything that’s bothering me that I lose sight of whether she actually has the capacity to listen. 

This isn’t an effective strategy. It can leave the listener feeling overwhelmed. Instead of jumping right in, it’s often to better to ask for permission. In many cases, we can become so inwardly focused, that we lose sight of those around us. Perhaps your confidant is in equally dire need of discussing their stress and bothers. Perhaps they aren’t in the right mental state to listen or help. Offer them an “opt-in” by asking for permission. Don’t assume they’re willing to listen.

2. Do you want advice or commiseration?

Sometimes it’s frustrating to receive unsolicited and unwanted advice when what you really want is commiseration. You are in the driver’s seat. Without clear direction from you, the person on the other end of the rant is left to guess what kind of response you’re looking for. You need to be explicit. It’s also important to make sure the person has the capacity to meet your desired needs. 

3. What’s your tone?

The tone of your voice is often more important than the words that are emitted. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania study found that a mere 7 percent of our communication is transmitted through our spoken words, while 23 percent is transmitted through our voice tone and inflection. 

Tone is especially important when talking to others about your stress. No one wants to be shouted at, even if they’re not the driver sparking the anger. Kristene A. Doyle, director of the Albert Ellis Institute, a psychotherapy organization, explains that sometimes when you’re letting off steam, it can feel like you’re speaking in all caps. This can make the person listening uncomfortable or cause them to tune out altogether.

4. Have a time limit.

When we’re discussing our stress, we often become fixated on one problem. But latching on to one problem and discussing it in great length can derail the conversation. Seven-time author and licensed psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith advocates for setting a time limit to avoid one issue dominating the valuable time you have with your confidant. He explains, “It’s important that you talk, but also that you don’t wear each other out.” 

Choose a timeframe that feels appropriate—five minutes, the time it takes to finish a chat string, or the set of announcements at a team meeting. At the conclusion of your conversation, thank the person for listening and move on to another topic.

5. You are responsible for your own stress.

A common pitfall associated with discussing your stress with others is the tendency to avoid looking inwards. It’s easy to fall into the habit of mentally construing a pessimistic thought, and blaming everything around you, without first stopping to consider the alternatives. Before you enlist the help of others, try to acknowledge ownership of your stress and stabilize the situation. This might involve taking a walk around the block, writing down your stress triggers or taking a hot shower to calm down.

6. Give and take.

Business leader Paul Boese once remarked, “We come into this world head first and go out feet first; in between, it is all a matter of balance.” Balance is the key to successfully discussing your stress. It’s often advantageous to do a pulse check to evaluate if your help seeking is sucking all the air out of your relationships. Make sure your relationships are reciprocal. If your help seeking or help giving is primarily one-sided, it’s more likely that other aspects of your relationships such as reaching out and making plans to spend time together are one-sided as well. 

It’s challenging to effectively ask for help about your stress. The conversation can quickly veer off track and leave you worse off than before. Fortunately, by following a few simple tactics, you’ll be able to prime yourself—and whomever you’re speaking with—for success. 

The Authors: 

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D., is the Chief People Officer of the Institute on Aging. She is also author of Stress-Less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and Life.