“What Can I do to Help?”

scrabble tile help

The question that changes everything

Twice recently I have been startled by the honest willingness of someone to really help me in a way that was exactly what I needed at the time.

I have great friends and I have been helped in so many countless ways in my life, and I believe in paying it forward, community service and all the other do-gooder ways out there.

But, I am realizing that there is a big difference between Can I help you?  and What can I do to help?

For a great moral story on helping others click here.


These few words can instantly change a mood, the direction of a project, re-focus and certainly lighten the load.

What Can I do to Help? is so much more powerful than, “Can I help you?” It requires a specific answer, not a simple “yes” or “no”.

When I was faced with the business decision to continue working at the café I owned or to sell it I was conflicted.  Like any decision, there were pros and cons and it was more heart wrenching because there wasn’t an obvious right choice (ahh, this is adulting, right?).

The right question at the right time

I called Sherry, a bubbly, funny woman in my church because I just knew she could give me some clarity, or at least a humorous perspective. I was annoying myself with how stressed out I was all the time, and I needed a laugh. What I got was so much more.

Sherry didn’t know why I requested a coffee date with her.  I got to her house and settled in her warm, lovely kitchen. After she offered me practically everything she could think of to eat or drink (she is such a great hostess!) we sat across from each other. I took a great big sigh, tried not cry, because it seemed like I was always on the verge of tears those days, and told her my dilemma.

Sherry took a long sip of tea while peering at me, set her mug down without breaking eye contact  and said, “What can I do to help?

What can I do to Help?It startled me, and ever since then I have been exploring why. It’s a simple thing to say, but it is so meaningful because I knew she was sincere~ she mean it. She wanted a concrete thing to do to make my situation easier on me. It also required an answer from me, and I didn’t really have one. I just wanted her to listen. I wanted her to make me laugh and remind me not to take myself so seriously. She did all those things, but she also gave me something really important to think about and put into practice.

What it really means

The question “What can I do to help?” shows that you are willing to invest your time, energy and emotion into the problem, not simply throw a platitude at it because that is the expected thing to do.  If you say, “Can I help you?” and the person replies “no” than you’ve done your duty and you are off the hook.

Specifically asking WHAT you can do will garner a much more honest and productive answer. If the reply is “nothing”, the follow-up can still be helpful with such things as:

  • “I can listen to you”
  • “It sounds like you might need some help”
  • “I really want to help”
  • “What is the most stressful thing you are dealing with right now?”

Everyone Wins

The second time this happened to me was in a much more positive light, but it still had a huge impact on me. I have sold the café and am now concentrating on my life-long passion of writing. I met two women for coffee. Candy who is a friend and former café employee and her businesses coach, Karyn. Karyn is helping Candy build her new businesses of life coaching and I wanted to hear how that was going. Early in the conversation Karyn asked me what I was doing with myself now that I had sold the café. I told them that I was getting back to writing and blogging and training for social media marketing and content management. When I was done with my elevator speech the first words out of Karyn’s mouth were, “What can I do to help?” WOW! Thanks, Karyn.  “Who do you know who could use these services?”

In the next 30 seconds she rattled off a bunch of names in an impressive act of mental acuity of people who she could put me in touch with. WOW! It helps that Karyn seems to know everybody and is the president of a local businesses networking group.  I thought I was just catching her up on my life, and it turns out, she was improving mine. It also turns out that I can help Candy with her business by writing and blogging for her, so we all WIN!

Putting it into Practice

I am starting to use the words “What can I do to help?” more , and I had the opportunity recently with my daughter, Anna Maybelle. She has started to experience the emotional roller coaster called puberty. Drama is the central dynamic around our house and some days she really struggles. Even though I have been through this myself, I am often at a loss as to how to handle it. After she had collapsed into a puddle of tears and hormones for the third time that day, I fought the urge to blurt out in exasperation “This really isn’t’ that big of a deal! I don’t know why are so upset!” I WAS trying to get dinner on the table, help her brother with his spelling and let the barking dog in the door for the fifth time. You know how it is.

Instead, I invoked Sherry & Karyn. I gently put a hand on Anna’ quaking shoulder, looked her in the eyes and softly said, “What can I do to help?”  She looked up at me (probably a lot like how I looked at Sherry), the tears slowed and we formulated a plan together.  I hope she understood that I was really listening and that I sincerely wanted to help. I think she did, because her reaction was so positive.

What can I do to help

I DO sincerely want to help people, but I don’t always know how. My morning chat with God almost always includes “Please put someone in my path today who I can help.” But I don’t always know what to do to help, so I am getting better at asking the right question in the right way.

I’d love to hear your story on how you significantly helped someone, or they helped you.

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