On Asking for Advice: Avoid Excessive Apology

In software development, there’s always a lot to keep up with. Many of us focus on our technical skills and often times, the softer skills are neglected. This post is about tips for those seeking help — especially technical — but also in the soft skills area.

I cam across someone in the past year who often emails me with developer (technical) questions. Recently, this person emailed me about challenges relating to soft skills and being able to convey one’s ideas effectively with other developers in their team.

Often times, questions from this person show up in my mailbox as “Question for you”.

Given that I’m often asked for advice on various topics, the advice I’d give the person felt relevant to share with a wider audience.

That’s why I wrote a more detailed response for this person, hoping to provide some direction not just for him, but for many others who seek advice but don’t know how to go about asking for it.

While my advice was tailored to this individual, I believe much of the guidance will resonate with others who unbeknownst to themselves, might be using profuse praise (of others), deprecation (of self) and profuse apology as a crutch to get others to help them, instead of “doing the work” to build their own knowledge base, character and life skills.

With that opening context, here’s some of the advice I gave this person in an email. You’ll notice that at points, my advice may seem a bit harsh.

In most contexts, I don’t advise this. Often times however, the very soft messages don’t plant a strong enough seed for action.

Skills for Influence

Here’s a book to read that will get you 80% of the way to understanding what soft skills and influence skills you’ll need in your career. I try to review it every couple of years. It’s the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

Reading this, further discussions relating to interpersonal challenges will no doubt, be much higher bandwidth, so to speak.

Email Subject Lines

Best not to start emails with generic, low-specificity subject lines like “Question for you”. That doesn’t really help the receiver assess anything at a glance. Or find things in one’s mailbox weeks later. Just like a stackoverflow post, be specific, yet concise. Strip out words that would be inferred.

For example, a better email subject line might be:

[Favour]: Soft skills and influence in the workplace / development tasks prioritization

When you, the one seeking someone else’s time and assistance, don’t put effort into your own request, the receiver is going to naturally have more of an aversion to your correspondence; subconsciously lumping you in with low value activities.

Reversing that negative subconscious reaction is not compensated for with profuse praise and thank-you’s. Such behavior can come across as needy, which is not only unattractive to women, being a man, but also unattractive to other men.

The Approach

Limit your praise and thank-you’s commensurate with the context; not as a way to make the receiver feel guilty if they turn you down. You want people to respond to you from a positive place, not one of pseudo-guilt, obligation or extreme empathy.

I’ve noticed some people who excessively apologize when asking for help or advice. When this manner of asking questions is repeated, this appears to others as a crutch for not being willing or able to “do the work”.

Don’t use apology as a cover for people legitimately wondering why you’ve not systematically covered basic source material you’re asking about. And if you’ve been called out on it, do your homework before going back with more questions.

On Getting Advice

Finally, if you ask a question or get advice, but then don’t take heed of the advice you’ve been given, realize that the person you’ve asked repeatedly for help will become disinclined to help you in the future.

Think about it from the receiver’s perspective:

Why should I answer this person’s questions? They won’t heed my advice or go through the material I’ve suggested in any reasonable amount of time anyways. They just want me to do all of their thinking for them. This doesn’t demonstrate initiative. 

For more on how to ask for favors and on how to get advice, mentors, etc., a must-read is the book The Education of Millionaires, by Michael Ellsberg.

Owning social intelligence can more easily move you from being the freelancer who bills at $x/hr to the one who commands $1.5x/hr or even $2x/hr.

These soft skills are worth investing in. Couple that with solid technical skills, and you’ll be a rare breed indeed.