How to Effectively Offer Help


Photo:  Elijah Nouvelage

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

What is that? Is it really an offer to help? Or is it an empty nicety – something pleasant people say without really meaning anything? I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how people conduct themselves as co-workers, clients, employees, friends, and bosses, but I can’t really pinpoint what got me thinking about that line. It’s certainly not a bad or mean thing to say. I just know it’s a very common phrase that, in most instances, doesn’t amount to much.

Full disclosure: When thinking of how I dislike this phrase, I got scared and did a search of my sent emails. Yep – the damn thing is all over my sent emails. Ugh. So, this should hardly be taken as a lecture piece by me. Rather, I’d just like to explore how and why this widely used but largely meaningless phrase worked its way into common usage.

People Who Say it Are Just Trying to be Nice

Granted. I really do accept that when people say “Let me know if I can do anything to help,” they are trying to be nice. And they might not know how they can help, which is why they leave the offer vague and open-ended. I totally get that, and I appreciate the gesture. But, vague and open-ended offers seldom lead to actionable or realized assistance. So while I’m sure they mean well, it’s probably not going to result in anything real, and that’s the point.

It’s Not a Real Offer

If someone says to me, “Let me know if I can do anything to help,” I have to go back and ask them a favor at a later time, even if it’s within minutes. Suddenly this “offer” just set me up to ask the person for a favor? Not the end of the world, obviously, but is it really a genuine offer of help if, for all intents and purposes, it’s phrased in a way that makes me ask them a favor?

Plus, if totally swamped then I’m unlikely to recall the offer, let alone what that person could do to help, nor am I likely go back and ask them for help. I’ll probably forget about the offer altogether.

Maybe that’s why the phrase persists. Because it’s an unaccountable, kind of soft offer that never really leads to any work by the person saying it. But it sounds nice. So I feel sort of good for hearing something nice, albeit empty, and they get to feel good for saying something kind of nice (without really committing to anything).

Derek Sivers had a great piece about a similar psychological quirk. His post argues against the popular notion that you should announce your goals in order to increase your chances of achieving them.

Citing significant research, Sivers points out that the opposite is true – that “announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.” And later:

“Once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a ‘premature sense of completeness.’ You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”

I think, subconsciously, many offers of “Let me know if I can do anything to help” create the same false sense of completeness. In this case, the person feels like they’ve already helped (because they offered), as opposed to the goal setter who feels like he already accomplished his goal just by telling people.

Is There a Better Way to Offer Help?

The phrase “Let me know if I can do anything to help” (and other variations) is flawed because it’s vague, unaccountable, and doesn’t lead to much help. So, a better way would be the opposite of those three characteristics.

1)      Be specific. This will be difficult at times because, as I mentioned earlier, you might not know exactly what a person needs help doing. In those cases, ask a lot of questions and make sure they are aware of what you can do to help. I’ve had really nice offers from people in the past who don’t know what I need help with, but they avail themselves by asking lots of questions and presenting many specific offers of what they can do. It’s inescapably clear that they are going to help, it’s just a matter of how.

Another way to get specific if you don’t have details is to dig. If it’s your boss or someone you’re trying to forge a relationship with, research what projects they’re working on and find out what you can take off their plate. Here’s an example of where I didn’t do this and another example people who did. Dig enough and you’ll find specific ways you can offer your assistance.

2)      Be accountable. This will result from being specific. If you go to your boss and say, “What can I take off your plate?” then, presumably, the task you take on will have a deliverable and a due date. Being specific will allow you to take over a particular task and, by extension, take ownership. Taking ownership is one of the best ways to get ahead.

3)      Focusing on numbers 1 and 2 above will maximize your chances of actually being able to help whoever it is you are trying to help. However, be careful because being specific with your offer and taking on responsibility will invariably lead to work, so keep that in mind. Sometimes, people will not take you up on your offer or you just won’t be able to help. But, at least you will be presenting a genuine, concrete offer of assistance.

So the real question is, “What are you trying to achieve when you offer someone help?” Are you comfortable throwing around pleasant but essentially meaningless gestures? Are you just trying to be nice but not really helpful? Or are you actually looking to help someone? If you are truly committed to helping someone, the chances of you finding a way are very high, and the person is certain to notice. Just by asking detailed questions when trying to find a way to help will separate you from most of the other “gesture” offers. Being considerate enough to genuinely try and find a way to help will be helpful. Imagine the impact you’ll make when you finally get to work.

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Tim Murphy is the founder of ApplyMate.com - the first free web app to help you track school and job applications.

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