How may I help?

“How can I help?” is not a question I often ask. When I’m attempting to assist someone, I am more likely to dive into the problem and offer a solution or a way to solve it—”Have you thought of x?” or “Have you tried y?” In our roles as colleagues, spouses, parents, and teachers we often try to be helpful by solving the problem at hand. However, we may soon learn that by offering a myriad of solutions or approaches to solve the problem, we instead may fuel a person’s anger, anxiety, or frustration.

This conundrum is addressed in a book I recently read titled “Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions” by James E. Ryan who is currently the president of The University of Virginia. In his book, Ryan puts forward five essential life questions. One of the questions Ryan recommends people ask is “How can I help?” He explains that the wording of the question is very important because it assumes that the person in need is capable and that the person offering the assistance is a partner (and not a superior). Asking this question allows for the person to control the support they want while maintaining their self-worth. Often, they may not even want a solution—they may just want to be listened to and have the time and space to articulate the possible ways to resolve their challenge.

The applications of this concept to our interactions with children are plenty. Whether at home or at school children are constantly trying new things and incorporating the tools, strategies, and feedback they learn throughout the day in these different circumstances. Asking children how you can help is a great way to nudge them to identify and articulate their hurdles and to begin to list the ways in which they may solve the problem themselves. Also, this question signals to children that we trust them setting their own course and that we are here to partner with them throughout the journey.