Offering Help That Is Actually Helpful

Offering help to someone is a way of extending love, friendship, and concern. As a Christian this should be occurring regularly in our church family, and then extending out into the community.

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More often than not, we tend to throw out a “Call me if you need me,” or “Let me know if I can do anything” to the person in need. This is, quite frankly, not helpful. I have fallen into the trap of saying these generic, off the cuff statements far too many times.

Why are these generic comments not helpful?

  • It leaves the receiver feeling indebted (assuming they actually ask). We could have a long debate about whether we should feel indebted or not, but let’s just cut to the chase. If someone offers me help out of the blue, I tend to think of it as just a simple act of kindness. I might want to return a kindness later, but I don’t feel indebted. When I have to ask someone, I often want to say, “when I’m feeling better, I’d love to exchange the favor.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but so many times we rob the giver of the joy and blessing of simply offering kindness by having a feeling of indebtedness. When you as a giver, leave the door open only for a request, the whole tone of the help changes.
  • The receiver does not always know what extent of help you are able to extend. What exactly does the person mean by help? Some people don’t have a lot of money, but would be more than willing to give their time to the person in need. Others don’t have a lot of time, but would be happy to put out $20 for a takeout meal. Putting the request in the hands of the receiver leaves them wondering what you mean, and could potentially put you in a position of not being able to follow through. Awkward all the way around.
  • The receiver may not know what they need. I know that many times the help that was most meaningful to me was something I would never have thought to ask for. When a person is in the midst of a difficult situation or trial, they may not even know that they need any help at all, let alone what kind of help.

Here are some things I have learned about offering help mostly from observing others.

1. Offer Specific Help.

When statements are too general, they often lack feet to the talk. Saying something like, “I’d like to bring a meal on Thursday” is much better than “I could bring a meal sometime.”

And, please don’t say, “Call me if you would like a meal.” Let’s just be real. I am not sick, have not just had a baby, and am perfectly capable of fixing meals for my family, but I would still do a happy dance if I didn’t have to cook one night. Of course they would like a meal. The likelihood of someone actually calling you is pretty slim, and probably is only if they are very desperate and should have been getting help much, much sooner.

There are so many ways you can phrase the statement that will almost always guarantee a, “Yes, that would be so helpful!” Be specific and don’t leave the person wondering what you actually mean by help.

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2. Make it about them, not you.

It is surprising to me how many times I have seen people get offended when they were told that the help that was genuinely needed was different from what they wanted to give.

If we are showing kindness to someone, it should be because we want to be of service to them. Not, that we are fulfilling our own agenda of how we want to help.

If you are not sure, ask someone that is closer to the situation. A relative, your church leadership, or a close friend of the person all might have some information that would help you know how you can be of service.

Ask a friend that has been through a similar situation what would be of help. While every situation varies, asking someone who has had a miscarriage, lost a child, lost a spouse, has a chronic illness, etc. can give you valuable insight into how to offer help. They can also give you a heads up on what things not to say. Make your help about the person, not you.

Also, respect the level of comfort you have with the person. If you don’t know them very well, stick to a meal. Don’t offer to watch someone’s children unless you are confident they would be comfortable leaving them with you. Just take that from a mom, okay?

3. Think before offering.

You see someone at church and you are suddenly reminded of a need. You quickly, and in vague, general terms, offer “help.”

You see a Facebook status that would indicate someone could use a hand, and without a moment’s hesitation you comment, “Let me know if you need anything.”

I shouldn’t have to say this, but this happens so often that I am going to spell it out. Words mean nothing if there is no action.

Next time someone is in need of help, pause a moment first. Think through what you could actually do, and then purposely and specifically offer help. Hold the generic comment at church or on Facebook, and pick up the phone and give them a call. It will mean so much more.

4. Don’t underestimate the small things.

Depending on the situation, meals, childcare, shopping, cleaning, or money might be in order. But so often we forget the simple act of being there for someone. Calling someone and letting them know you are thinking about them in their situation. Writing a card. Dropping off a coffee. Leaving something fun at their door. Showing small acts of kindness is becoming a lost art.

It doesn’t have to be big. Knowing someone cares and is thinking about them is often gift enough. Do something. However small.

What are some meaningful ways you have offered or been offered help?

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Comments

  1. Mom says:

    Great thoughts, Jo. I hate to think how many times I say “let me know if I can help”– probably almost weekly. And I agree, if someone says it to me, I know that I will never call and ask for that “help.” Need to re-think my offer before I just generalize my genuine desire to help the next time.

  2. Naomi says:

    When we lost our first child I was overwhelmed at the thoughtfulness shown to me. Each card– even if just signed, with no long personal note, was such a blessing! Also, even though I was perfectly capable of cooking I didn’t *feel* like cooking. It was such a blessing when a friend called and said, “I’m going to bring dinner over. Does Wednesday work for you?” And that was a couple weeks after the miscarriage (due to the fact we left for Arizona the day after to watch Jon & Amy’s kids). Offering specific help and then *doing* it is such a blessing!

    I also understand sometimes people (myself included! :-/ ) don’t think things through and so they sincerely offer generic help. I’m really trying to learn to put down my pride, take them at their word (as I’d want them to do with me!) and call them for help. Sometimes they come through and sometimes they don’t, but maybe it will at least help them re-think before offering generic help again :)

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, and leaving something fun at the door is great! After Caleb was born a friend didn’t want us to be overwhelmed with yet another visitor when we were so tired. She left shortcake and strawberries in a bag on our door and called us as she drove away! What a blessing!!! Love true friends! :)

  3. Great post, Johanna! Someone at church told me just this past week. “Call me if you ever need anything.” And while I truly do appreciate the sentiment, you’re right – I’m probably not going to call, because I don’t know what kind of help she could offer. And it would feel like an imposition. And then of course there’s the pride issue of “having” to ask for help :)

    But it is so wonderful when someone offers something specific. Like taking me out for lunch and girl time, when I can’t afford it otherwise. Or dropping by with a bag of groceries. Who cares if it’s not what we’d normally choose for ourselves?! It means the world that they took the time to do that.

    We need to put ourselves in other’s shoes and – like you said – do something specific.

  4. Elva says:

    Excellent post!!

    The thought of having someone who wants to help ask someone who has already been through the situation is very good.

  5. Rachel says:

    We’ve been on the receiving end of hep many times, because I had to spend time on bedrest during each of my three pregnancies and my oldest spent months in the hospital. We have been blessed by SO many of our family, friends and church family who offered help through many different ways (gift cards, homecooked meals, childcare, visits, monetary gifts, cleaning our house…the list could go on!)

    As I look back on the times I received help I have to agree completely with what you shared about being truly helpful. It was the greatest help when someone was specific in what they wanted to do or were willing to help with. An example? Normally, I wouldn’t come out and ask someone to clean my house but it was something I desperately needed since I had to be off my feet due to bedrest. So,when someone mentioned they wanted to do that specifically–I accepted and was blessed tremendously through their labor of love!

    Great post with helpful tips! Thanks for sharing. =)

    • Johanna says:

      Thanks for your perspective! I, too, had someone offer to clean my house when I was on bed rest and it was so helpful, but I know that I would never have asked for it!

  6. RaShell S says:

    Great reminder! Thank you for the encouragement to be truly helpful.

  7. Kristin J. says:

    This is very helpful. I laugh when I think of all the times I’ve said to you, “I really want to return the favor! Call me when you need someone to watch the kids!” instead of just gratefully accpeting your help in a needy time. : ) Good tips to put into practice.

    • Johanna says:

      :-) Take your time healing from having a baby and surgery. You’ll have plenty of opportunities later, I’m sure!

  8. Great practical post. I come from a family that doesn’t “need” help. I rarely ask for help. I look at my situation, and someone else’s life and busyness, and decide my need isn’t that great. But, if people call and offer some specific help-like watching my kids-I am so grateful and happy to take them up on it. I try to offer specific things to others to. Ask what would be most helpful. I did laundry for my sil when she was in the hospital with her son for 10 days last spring. She had child care, didn’t need meals. Did need clean clothes. Anyway, thanks for sharing.=)

    • Naomi says:

      Laundry! Yes, that’s a big one that most people won’t ask for, but my mom always said if she could have had help in any one area it would have been that.

    • Johanna says:

      I agree, it is often harder to be on the receiving end. And laundry is a great idea to think of! thanks!

  9. Nina says:

    Great advice, and one that I know but don’t always put into practice! I think on one hand, it’s easy to say “Let me know if you need help” because we may not always know what kind of help they need. But even in this case, I think it would still serve the other person better if we ask specific things, “Let me know if I can stop by and drop off a meal on Thursday or if you need me to help watch the baby,” etc.

    I think it’s also a good idea for anyone going through stuff to have a list handy of things they could use help more of. I sort of did this with my siblings when my kiddo was born, so that if anyone asked if they could do anything, I had a list handy and I could say, “Actually yeah—do you have DVDs I could borrow?” or “I’m low on honey; could you pick some up for me?”

    • Johanna says:

      I sometimes like to say, “Which would be more helpful?” and then give a couple of options. That lets the person choose, while still giving some specific options.

      I love your idea of a list. So helpful when someone calls, and I can’t think of anything!

  10. Great advice. I have a friend who has taught me so much about this simply by demonstrating it to me. :) She’s often told me she’s bringing something by, or tells a friend she’s left a meal for them in the church fridge. It’s also fun to help someone by preparing something for them and surprising them (in a non-intrusive way, of course).

    At the same time, there are times and friends with whom I can say “let me know if you need anything.” For example, maybe if I’ve already offered a few suggestions and it doesn’t work, or if I know I’ll be away for the present (whether out-of-town, busy with guests in the home, etc…), then I may try to say something like, “I’ll be away for __,” or “I can’t help right now, but next week, I’ll be back. If you think of anything I can do for now, let me know if I can help.” Not the best solution, but one that possibly carries meaning at time.

    It is difficult for some, regardless, to accept any help without them feeling indebted or that you’ve one-upped them (or been one-upped). Part of learning to serve others often includes us learning to be served ourselves. On the receiving end, like Nina mentioned, it is helpful to try to think of ways others can help. (Though this is likely best played out when you know ahead of time you are going through a time of needed help.)

    • Johanna says:

      “Part of learning to serve others often includes us learning to be served ourselves.” — Very true. I am going to be talking about that in a future post because this is something that I have struggled with and have had to learn.

      And I do think that if the person is really close you can say “let me know if you need anything.” Typically if it is a good friend, you can reasonably assume they would indeed call you. But the average church friend, etc, probably wouldn’t. At least from my experience.

      And I have totally learned these things from seeing “good helpers” in action! :)

      • Something that I’m learning too–looking forward to your post.

        I agree–I think I have about 2 or 3 friends who I can say that to and who can say that to me, knowing it will be followed up on. But usually we don’t–they’re usually the ones who best demonstrate the “we’re taking over and we’re going to help you,” anyway. :)

  11. Steph says:

    Great topic! Being specific is so important to actually being helpful to others.

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