How to Offer Help in a Way That’s Actually Helpful
When you see a coworker who’s stuck or upset, it’s natural to ask how you can help. In fact, if you view yourself as an empathetic person, you might feel compelled to ask, “Anything I can do to help?”
However, asking how you can help can be the wrong thing to do because the question, though well-intended, is too vague. It doesn’t offer specific ideas for what you might do for the person. Instead, it puts the burden on someone who is already stressed to identify the possible ways you might help.
If you’re confident that the person would actually like help—and your help in particular—a better approach is to offer to do a specific thing: “Take a break and let me review what you’ve written so far.” Or phrase it as a question, such as “How about if I review what you’ve written so far and give you my thoughts?”
If you’re unsure whether the person would like your help, you can ask, “Would it be helpful if I review what you’ve written so far?” which allows the person to say no thanks. Or alternatively, “I’d be happy to review what you’ve written so far if that would be helpful to you.”
Whatever you offer, be prepared for the possibility that a person who genuinely needs help might decline. Accepting your offer might make the person feel inadequate or inferior. Or it might make the person feel burdened with the obligation to respond in kind and be trapped by that burden until the favor is returned. So if someone declines your offer, don’t take it personally. There’s nothing to be gained by foisting help on someone who doesn’t want it.
Keep in mind that some people like to solve their problems themselves; indeed, they may learn more if they solve certain problems on their own. Furthermore, some people may appreciate your help at some point, just not now. And some people may want help, but not from you. Unless the person’s refusal will be detrimental to your team or your project, it may be best to simply say, “OK, if you change your mind at any point, let me know” and leave it at that.