Do you cringe when a co-worker starts to complain about their workload or a problem? Maybe you’re pitching a client and don’t understand why they seem distracted. In today’s society, we tend to be focused on our own needs, our own goals, even when interacting with others. We want the person on the other end of the phone call or email or video chat to listen to us, buy from us, hire us. Yet there’s a simple sentence that, when used, can create incredible returns for you in ways you cannot imagine.
“How can I help?”
It sounds easy, but it demands that you show up and follow through. That’s no easy feat when you’re already busy with your own workload, projects, side hustles, family, and other activities. However, by coming from a place of service not profits, you’ll benefit both professionally and personally. The caveat here is that you have to mean it. People can sense insincerity. If you offer to help, you actually have to step up and follow through. The bonus is that by truly listening to another person’s needs and putting the focus on them, you both win.
Think you’re too busy to utter this phrase? Bear in mind it’s used every day by some of the most successful CEOs and industry leaders in the country. Imagine being in a group setting. It might be a civic group working on a volunteer project or an international videoconference between multiple departments of a firm. Person A lays out the issue at hand bemoaning the obstacles of the situation. Person B asks, “How can I help?” Everyone at the table knows person B is busy given his or her job title and the many boards, commissions, or civic groups in which they are involved. By putting aside their own busy agenda to focus on solving the problem at hand, person B inspires others to do so as well. The situation resolves itself quickly and the group is able to move on to accomplish bigger and larger goals.
“Call me if you need anything” versus “How can I help?”
There’s a big difference between “call me if you need anything” and “how can I help?” The former implies willingness to help at a distance while the latter implies the person offering assistance is present and willing regardless of their busy schedule. Which person are you going to call on?
My brother’s recent sudden death illustrated the acute differences between these two phrases in a way that only intense pain can. Dead at the age of 48 from an apparent heart attack and leaving my teenage niece an orphan, my mom and I were in a fog of shock and disbelief as we went through the motions of making my brother’s funeral arrangements. Many kind people, including relatives, friends – even high school chums I had not seen in decades – all offered condolences and the catch phrase “call me if you need anything.” They were all very sincere and heartfelt.
But the ones that will stand out in my memory are the ones that said, “How can I help?” They were already front and center waiting to directed to whatever task was at hand, whether it meant driving to the airport to pick up a relative or helping to fix a meal.
By focusing on others, whether in business or our personal lives, it changes the interaction from ‘what’s in for me?’ to ‘how can I be of service?’ It’s seems counterintuitive given our society’s common business practice of focusing on the bottom line of sales and profits, but it works. By changing the tone of the conversation the other person realizes you are there for them and not just their money. They in turn are much more likely to want to be there for you to help you with your problems.
A tale of two florists
Case in point. I wanted tropical flowers at my brother’s funeral. The florist where my brother lived wanted to charge me $125+ for an arrangement with three tropical flowers. Three flowers. I called a nursery near where I live in Hawaii. When the sales clerk asked how she could help I explained my situation. Within three hours of placing my phone call, the clerk had selected an exquisite and varied assortment of tropical flowers and shipped my order to ensure it met delivery deadlines. I received the flowers within 48 hours (from Hawaii to Massachusetts) and had a florist arrange several of the stems in a large floral display for the funeral. The Hawaiian nursery sent me so many flowers I had enough to make five more floral arrangements!
One could argue that this nursery was simply doing their job since they are in the business of selling flowers and I was merely a customer. Yet, from my interaction with the sales staff, I felt that they were more concerned about me and meeting my needs than the dollar amount of the sale.
Interestingly enough, my mom had ordered two funeral flower arrangements from the hometown florist where my brother lived. They were pleasant enough and the flowers were pretty, but I certainly did not have the impression they were going out of their way for us. Later on, my mom and I compared notes and discovered that I paid $100 less for my flowers, even though I received substantially more and had them shipped 5,000 miles from Hawaii. Guess which florist I’ll be using for years to come?
Start using the phrase “how can I help?” whether at work or in group activities. Use it whenever the opportunity arises in a given day. Be aware that you need to follow through on whatever support you offer, so be sure you don’t overextend yourself. Try using this phrase whenever possible for 30 days. By being empathic and switching the focus to the other person, you’ll be amazed at how situations change. Problems that seemed insurmountable will diminish.
I know for myself, the people who stepped up to the plate and pitched in after my brother’s sudden death earlier this month really made an impact on me – one I will remember for a very long time. Try it for yourself and see. Start asking, “how can I help?” and the benefits will increase and multiply in ways that might surprise you.
A final note:
While coming from a place of service will help change situations and relationships for the better, the opposite is also true. If you are coming from a ‘me-centric’ point of view or only have your goals in mind, you’ll be remembered – for all the wrong reasons. People can sense whether your empathy and concern is genuine or self-serving. Just as I’ll long remember the people who asked, “how can I help?” after my brother died, I’ll equally remember those people who approached me offering condolences then quickly turned around and asked me for a favor.
No less than four people, interestingly enough all from the same organization, approached me in the days after my brother’s death. They did not ask what they could do to help, rather they asked me to do favors for them after offering a trite note of condolence. Each of their requests was bureaucratic and non-emergency in nature. In fact, two of situations could have been solved quickly if the person asking for my help had simply spent a few minutes researching the answer online. You can be sure the fact that these people reached out to me at a time when my family and I were facing a devastating and life-changing loss – not with offer of aid, but to help them meet their own needs based on their own self-imposed goals is something I will remember for a very, very long time.