My husband came home from work the other day, completely stressed out. After a five-minute rant about how nuts his day was, he paused and I said the simple phrase, “How can I help?” Almost instantly, he visibly relaxed, said he just wanted to talk, apologized for getting worked up, and grabbed a beer. Crisis solved.
Thing is, I knew the conversation would end that way. “How can I help?” has been my go-to relationship phrase ever since I first learned it at a startup I worked for a few years ago. The company had a bunch of “—isms” they wanted us to memorize that were designed to help us be better coworkers. These phrases were inescapable at this job: Not only did we get them in the employee handbook and were encouraged to use them when communicating with our coworkers, they were also plastered all over the walls of the office, so you could get your —ism fix while waiting for your coffee to brew in the kitchen, peed in the bathroom, etc..
While most were kind of cheeseball (hello, “respond with urgency”), I found myself using “how can I help?” often at work. Eventually it followed me home, and now, I use it whenever my husband is upset, sad, stressed out, or angry—and it works every damn time.
I love “how can I help?” so much that I’ve raved about it to friends, who also use it in their relationships. But why is this simple phrase so powerful?
Because it makes someone feel that you’re in a situation with them, explains Mark Reinecke, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “People feel they need help when their usual ways of coping with whatever the problem may be in life are overmatched,” he says. “They feel overwhelmed, depressed, and helpless. Asking ‘how can I be of help?’…it leads the person to feel that they’re not alone.”
The way it’s worded is also crucial, since it’s inviting a blueprint for action, says Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan. “Saying ‘can I help?’ is a yes or no question with potential to shut down the dialogue, but ‘how can I help?’ opens up communication,” she says.
It also doesn’t make the assumption that you know how to fix things, which can be annoying when all someone wants to do is vent. “You’re not saying you know how to fix this, you’re saying you want to understand,” Charnas says.
So, when’s the best time to whip out The Phrase? Charnas says it really can be used in any situation when you feel that your S.O. needs sympathy and love. Reinecke also points out that it’s not just limited to romantic relationships—this is a good one to use in friendships, too. “Any situation where a person feels overwhelmed, that’s a good time to use it,” he says.
While “how can I help?” can take the guesswork out of what you can actually do to make things better, I usually just hear something along the lines of, “I’m good, but thanks for listening.”