Stop Telling People “I’d Love to Help, Just Let Me Know What You Need”

Being on the receiving end of a lot of kind and generous offers for help in the last few years has taught me a lot about how to offer help to others. I realize now that the help I’ve offered others has often been too vague and open-ended to be really helpful. Inspired by what I’ve learned, I’ve made one of my 2023 resolutions to offer specific help instead of the blanket “let me know what you need.”

“Just let me know what you need”—it sounds perfect, doesn’t it? When I have said it in the past, I meant that I wanted to help and was willing to do whatever needed to be done. I was always sincere in being willing to do whatever needed to be done. But having been on the receiving end of that statement many times since my late husband’s stroke, I realize how unhelpful the phrase is. And having uttered the phrase many times myself, I can’t think of too many instances in which someone actually took me up on the offer.

In the midst of my husband’s stroke and then death, most of the time I was too overwhelmed to know what I needed, so I asked for nothing in the moment. Later, when I recognized a need, I either couldn’t remember who had offered help or I felt sheepish calling in that help so many days/weeks/months/years later.

I found it a lot easier to accept help when it was offered with a specific outcome and even time, like this: “I’d like to bring you a meal. Would Tuesday night about 5 work?” When people said, “Let me know when I can bring you food,” I appreciated the offer but following up took more organization (who offered food? What exactly did they offer?) and effort than I was able to muster most of the time. And I sweated over how to phrase what now felt like a needy request; “Hi, I think you offered me a meal a while ago . . . can you bring it over tonight?” seemed obnoxious.

I also found that the phrasing of the offer makes a big difference. Although “let me know how I can help” totally doesn’t work for me, a similar offer phrased as a question does. When someone asks me, “What do you need?” I can actually think of things, whereas when they say, “Let me know how I can help,” my mind goes blank. Perhaps it’s the question structure that prompts my brain to answer it, while the statement feels almost like something else to be added to my to-do list—“figure out what I need and tell so-and-so.”  

Sometimes after my husband’s stroke or death, someone asked me, “What do you need?” and I answered with something they couldn’t possibly help with or with a need so big and vague it was unclear how it could be met. But the lovely thing about people asking “What do you need?” is that when my answer doesn’t net a concrete thing for them to do, they typically ask follow up questions, like this:

Friend: What do you need?

Me: Ugh, I need to not feel overwhelmed.

Friend: Hmmm. What have you done in other situations when you felt overwhelmed?

Me: I don’t know. Drink. Just kidding. Um, I’ve made a list of everything that needs to be done and then prioritized it.

Friend: How about if I come over and help you do that?

Another time I told a friend who asked what I needed that I was trying to figure out how to get out of a project I felt committed to. She offered to do some roleplaying to help me figure out how to have a conversation about leaving the project, which turned out to be quite helpful and empowering.

I also appreciate when people’s offers prompt me to recognize a need. For example, when someone told me they could help me with organizing and planning activities for a memorial event, I realized that a memorial event could be more than a simple gathering with eulogies. That friend ended up helping me plan an amazing memorial event that was so great the bartender told me, “This event was more fun than the last few weddings I’ve worked.”

When I reflect on the times I’ve offered help, I see that specific offers have been much more readily accepted. When I’ve offered to write obituaries, collect remembrances in a book, write thank you notes, organize belongings, or make difficult phone calls to banks, insurance companies, and other institutions, my offers have often been accepted. When I’ve said, “Let me know how I can help,” the story is different. Occasionally someone will contact me to ask for company or help doing something tough, but it’s rare.

To take action on my resolution, I’ve made a list of the skills I can offer to others: writing, listening, organizing, having difficult conversations, and cooking. I will no longer say, “Let me know what you need.” From here on out, I will either offer to do specific tasks related to my skills or I’ll ask, “What do you need?”

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