Over the last few years I’ve noticed that one phrase that I use over and over again has had an outsized impacts on both my work and personal relationships. It’s become my secret weapon to help me be a better friend and a better to partner to everyone I’m lucky enough to spend much time with. That phrase is “how can I help?”.
How can I help?
In all kinds of situations, this is a great phrase.
If someone is telling you about a problem they’re facing, “how can I help?” trumps “I know how you feel” (you probably don’t!) and is always better than jumping straight into giving advice. In fact, if they want advice, this question allows them to ask for it directly. If not, you’ll know. If there is something you can do to help, they’ll tell you directly. If not, and most importantly, you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready and willing to help if they need it. I’ve found that demonstrating the willingness to help is always more comforting to the other party than any unsolicited advice or other attempt at proactively comforting them that I’ve tried.
Sometimes if I’m experiencing tension with someone at work, and in particular if they’ve come to me to tell me that I’ve done a bad job and they’re pissed, this is my go to phrase to defuse the situation. “How can I help?” or “what can I do to make this better in the future” work wonders to first defuse the tension by showing that you’re interested in collaborating to fix whatever the problem is and second by diverting the conversation from how frustrated they are and getting them to talk about what potential solutions might be.
Similarly, pretty much any time anyone comes to me for advice or with a new idea, I’ll drop a “how can I help?”. This gives me a great opportunity to be collaborative with people in my network and help out if I can. This sort of generally positive collaborative attitude has paid huge dividends for me over my career — it both gives you the opportunity to build stronger connections by helping people out, it builds goodwill in case you ever need a hand in the future, and generally it positions you as the sort of person that’s interested in collaborating on whatever someone is working on.
This phrase is not a trick! You shouldn’t ask someone how you can help if you’re not actually willing to help them! My general attitude towards life is that I should try to help as many people as I can, however I can, and so this phrase helps me broadcast that without just imposing my will on other people. However, if you don’t actually want to spend the time and energy helping people you should 1) reconsider your priorities and 2) definitely not use this phrase as you’ll only end up backing yourself into a weird and very unpleasant corner.
Very importantly, if you’re going to offer to help lots of people, you have to be willing to say no to a request that comes in if you can’t actually do it. If you’re going to offer to help, you have to also know your boundaries — asking how you can help doesn’t commit you to whatever they ask for, but it does commit you to trying to find a solution with them. I say “no” to requests that come from this question all the time, but I’ll generally follow up with an idea for something I can do in a similar vain. “No, I can’t guarantee an introduction to that person, but I can send them a blurb about you and if they respond positively I can do it”. Or “unfortunately I’m busy Saturday, but I can help you look for someone on Craigslist who can help you move”.
If you’re going to try to help a lot of people (and you should!) you also have to protect your time — striking that balance can be tough, but I’ve found that I’ve so rarely been asked to do something that wasn’t extremely easy for me to handle that it’s I’ve never experienced real stress over it.
So — what’s going on with you? How can I help? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂