7 Reasons Why Not To Start Conversations With “How can I help you?”

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Image by Anisa Goshi

What happened to just a normal chat?

Not so long ago I came across a post on LinkedIn promoting that during this pandemic year, we have to look out for each other and that it should become standard to open conversations with “How can I help?”, “What can I do to help?” or a similar formulation.

Those who know me also know there are subjects I am passionate about and then there are some I am extremely passionate about. Identifying and eliminating assumptions, changing perspectives, and reducing the number of questions we ask fall in the latter category.

While I fully agree that we have to support each other and cooperate as best we can, the part about using these questions to open conversations created a reaction in me. When I read about using these lines to make a connection with someone it not only hit a chord of discomfort, but in fact a full-blown philharmonic orchestra started playing. So I knew something had been bothering me these last few months when I read those statements but could not quite place what until recently. During my many years of working in crisis settings and making challenging decisions, I have learned to listen to one thing very carefully and that is my gut feeling. So I decided to explore this.

An increasing number of conversations these days are with people we meet for the first time. On top of it all online, which makes it difficult to read all communication signals. In the weeks following the post above, I observed the opening of many conversations and it was true that an increasing number of them started with questions similar to the ones mentioned in the post.

I also reflected on the conversations I have had throughout the year and while I had many connections with truly amazing, inspiring and creative minds all over the world — one thing I absolutely appreciate from this challenging situation — I also realised that some conversations did not make me feel particularly at ease. And all of them contained this question of help right at the start.

A helper needs someone to help

I am aware that many people who use these opening questions do not have any negative intentions and genuinely try to help and I am sure, in many cases, this is also a fair question and leads to a constructive conversation. However, here are some potential problems I found with posting this question early on in a conversation:

  1. Implicit assumptions.

A:”Hi, good to meet you (digitally). How can I help?”

B (pauses thinking): “Eh. Do I look, like I need help?”

A question like that clearly implies that the other person needs help because otherwise, the suggested formulation could be “If there is anything you need support with, let me know”. Also, it assumes that our conversation circles around anything that needs fixing and I am the one who needs help to fix it. This is mildly presumptuous and in the worst-case scenario could be perceived as intrusive and in interference with one’s autonomy.

2. Establishing power-relations.

A helper always needs someone s/he can help otherwise, they cannot fulfil their (sometimes self-assigned) role. Toxic power dynamics are clearly outlined and explained in the renowned helper/perpetrator/victim triangle. And with asking this question at the beginning of a conversation, the person doing the asking puts him-/herself into a power position and potentially creating such an unhealthy dynamic and can make the other person vulnerable.

3. Keeping control over the content.

I also had many conversations throughout the year which were simply labelled “introductions” without an agenda, and I am the first one to admit this is always an uncomfortable feeling. I know from my experience as a facilitator that when we are losing or about to lose control, asking questions is one of the safest things to avoid doing so. And naturally, this is what we do in moments like these; we start off with a question to be in control over where to steer the conversation.

4. Our own demons.

Someone said to me the other day that, seemingly, on LinkedIn there are only people who want to solve problems and nobody who actually needs a problem solved. This is far from the truth; however, it is actually a lot easier to focus on other people’s problems than our own. This year has been challenging for almost everyone both professionally and privately and naturally in crisis we want to keep control over what is ours and hold on to it, even if it is a problem because ultimately it’s mine. Instead, we are keen to show our competencies and share what we can do to help others with their problems.

5. Asking is hardly ever sharing.

I recently ran a workshop about facilitation without questions. Something I am deeply passionate about and have always wanted to do. There I outlined that asking questions is often mistakenly interpreted as encouraging sharing, but in my experience rather the opposite is the case. Asking someone things is an easy way out to not have to share your own story but creates the expectation in the other person to share theirs.

6. Rejection or submission.

When you consider asking this question of ‘how can I help you’, reflect over what choices you present the other person and technically there might just be two: a rejection of your generous offer to help, even if I do not need any, OR a submission into a request that I might not be willing to open up to and share. There are not so many others in between. Adding “you can always say no”, does not lift the burden of such an implicit choice, it might rather increase the likelihood of giving into the request.

7. Rapport and psychological safety.

Asking a question similar to what was suggested in this post does not present a great foundation for what is key to good conversations: psychological safety and establishing rapport. It is a figurative bulldozer that meets a children’s garden playhouse. Don’t be surprised, if the talk is cut short and you might not hear back.

Follow the natural conversation instead

So when recently asked this question at the start of a conversation, I reacted by smiling and saying:

I could ask you the same question, but you know what, I have not thought of that at all. I would like to just enjoy a conversation and hear what you are up to, get perspectives on what I am up to and see where the conversation leads us. And, if then we find out we can help each other, amazing.”

Not only was the tension of meeting a stranger for the first time digitally gone, the other person’s shoulders visibly went down and there was a smile too, followed by a short “Thank you. I would really like that.”

We then went on to share how much pressure there is in the constant (and partly self-induced) expectation of having to help and do things for others, and how we were both in need of normal conversations that stimulate and are characterised by true sharing of perspectives, experiences and ideas. We simply followed where the conversation led us, and it was stimulating, encouraging and a truly enjoyable chat, which we agreed would definitely not be the last between us. And, most wonderful of all, we actually found something where I need help and it was a natural thing.

So, next time you think of opening by asking the question “How can I help?” or “What can I do for you?” maybe consider stopping for a moment to reflect if you are in a mandated position to do so, or if it was clearly stated that this is needed by the other person. It might make all the difference to them. And there are better ways to initiate a true conversation anyway. One of them being a genuine, interested and curious: “How are you doing?

Experienced international crisis leader, mediator, mentor, facilitator and speaker. Psychology geek and a little sarcastic at times.

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