Help Me, Help You

by Joseph Kwon in


Why does it sometimes feel hard to figure out the best way to help someone who is going through a tough time? It might be getting laid off, family problems, or an unexpected sickness, to name a few. Our sincere, if somewhat stock response often feels lame and ineffective, "Let me know if there is ANYTHING I can do to help." More often than not you don't hear anything back, but you intuit that silence does not necessarily mean they couldn't use some assistance. Yet, you feel powerless to do anything without potentially intruding or making things worse.

The problem with a generic offer to help is when someone is suffering, there are various reasons why they won't ask you for help. Pride. Guilt. Shame. Trauma. The cognitive overload of what they are dealing with can make it impossible to deal with even the most ordinary tasks, let alone come up with suggestions for what others can do to help. So what can we do instead?

Sometimes it is useful to give some specific options of support we could offer. Things that don't require them do much beyond saying yes or no. Offering up options can trigger their thinking so even if none of the things you suggest is needed, it may bring to their mind something that would be helpful. A few examples.

Situation: You find out your good friend has lost their job.
Lame: Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.
Better: If you want, I can review your resume, do a mock interview with you, or meet up over dinner to brainstorm next steps.

Situation: A friend is going through a divorce.
Lame: Let me know if there is anything you need.
Better: Let me know if you want me to take the kids off your hands one evening so you have some quiet time to think or if you want me to bring over dinner one night so you have one less thing to worry about.

When a friend is suffering, it can be hard to relate and our tendency is to revert to platitudes that while well-intended, may not be helpful. Even the most well-intentioned of us doesn't always have the best responses on hand. Next time this comes up, try mentioning a few concrete options to help to a friend.

If you try this, let me know how it goes.

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