“How can I help you ?”

sridhar blog

My client was upset. He felt that the world was being unfair to him. He wasn’t getting his due share of recognition and rewards.He wanted to quit but he could not afford to.

“How do you think I can be of help”, I asked looking at his agony.

“Thanks for asking. Don’t think you can do anything.” he said. We closed the meeting.

When I met him the following week, he was still upset with everything and every one. I listened to him patiently.

A little later I asked “How can I help you?”

“I don’t know really… how can you help?”

“ May be I can help you think the issue through. Look at the choices you have. Help you prioritize what matters most for you.”

“But you don’t know my situation and what it feels like.”

“I may not know exactly what your situation is but I know what it feels like …I have felt like that on a couple of occasions…”

“What happened?…”

This was enough for me to engage him in a meaningful conversation and finally help him remove the cobwebs in his mind.

But I realized that there seems to be a subtle difference between “How do you think I can be of help?” and “How can I help you?”

Every time I asked “How do you think I can be of help?” I got no response. Every time I asked “How can I help you?” it opened a door to some conversation and I could build on it.

Intrigued by this I asked a few friends as to why this happened. Here is one interpretation:

“How do you think I can be of help?” sounded a bit formal and distant. You put the responsibility on the other person. He had to think how you can be of help. That was too much work for someone already in pain.

In contrast “How can I help you?” is simple. Your willingness to help is clear. There is a ring of sincerity in it which is unmistakable. It has a better chance of opening a door and leading to some conversation.

I find many doctors use that. Especially when they are meeting a patient for the first time. Or when they are meeting a patient after a long time.

My doctor prefers “How can I help you?” to “What is your problem?”

His observation is that the answers focus on the solution patients want.

Here is an example he gave me.

“What is your problem?”

“Don’t really know. There are many things. Recently I am finding that everything is boring. Especially food….”

“How can I help you?”

“I would like to get back my sense of taste. Everything tastes the same these days – bland and boring.”

When you are willing to help just ask “How can I help you?”


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