Person in trouble
When someone is in actual trouble, the words 'let me know what you need' tends to create more work for them, rather than being an actually helpful offer. Image Credit: Shutterstock

You see a friend drowning in dishes, your colleague buried under paperwork, or your partner wrestling with a malfunctioning appliance. You want to help and so you say, “Let me know if you need help.”

This seemingly helpful, sincere phrase and similar variations can land with a thud.

“It feels bland and meaningless,” explains Riyah Sharma, a Dubai-based marketing professional. When her mother was in the hospital, she received a barrage of such messages from her relatives. “It was a particularly difficult time, and all our relatives were just sending that one line. I know they meant well - no one was being insincere. I started thinking of what I could ask them to help with, which is more stressful. I think anyone in my position or going through something similar, doesn’t have time to tell you what they need,” she says.

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When you’re in such a space, you don’t even know what you need, she adds. “It feels like a convenient line; as if to say, ‘my job here is done because I checked in’,” adds Marianna Leigh, a British Dubai-based entrepreneur, who just “ignores” such messages or lines now. “I think if you want to help out or be there for someone, you just find a way,” she says.

‘An overburdened plate’

Stressed person
The phrase can just seem like words to a person who is particularly troubled or tired - they feel like a box that has just been ticked. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Unintentionally, you might be creating more work for a person, despite your best efforts.

As Elizabeth Hall, a Canadian Dubai-based psychologist explains, when someone is going through a particularly stressful time, they aren’t aware of what they need. “This is particularly true with people dealing with sick family members and hospital visits,” she says, citing an example. “In that moment, they’re running around for paperwork; they’re already exhausted and probably numb. They’re just focused on meeting basic needs, like taking a shower or getting food to eat," she says.

So your offer of 'let me know...' creates more work for that person, says Aida Suhaimi, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist at Medcare Camali Center.  They need to start wondering how you can help: What can you do, will you agree to what they ask? For example, would you be alright with watering the plants, or picking up the laundry? Or would you just be willing to hear them out?

The offer of 'let me know what you need' creates additional work for the other person. First, they need to think of anything that could help them. Then they have to evaluate whether that task is something you are willing to undertake....

- Aida Suhaimi, psychologist, Medcare-Camali Clinic, Jumeirah

Finally, when they ask you, they also have to worry whether that is something you would agree to. And if you can’t do it, they feel worse than before. They feel as if they overstepped or crossed a line, which adds to their already overflowing plate, as both Hall and Suhaimi explain.  So, they need to think of something that you can help with, consider whether you can do it, worrying whether you will say no. This also another reason that prevents people from asking for help, when stressed out.

Worse, this phrase doesn’t often have a follow-through, as Lucy Bridges, a British psychologist, based in the UK. “It just evaporates into thin air. You offer help, they don’t take you up on your vague offer for good reason, and then silence. It cements the belief that you weren’t being sincere in the first place,” she explains. This phrase can just seem like words to a person who is particularly troubled or tired - they feel like a box that has just been ticked, she adds.

Let me know, is a starting point

You don’t have to strike the phrase down so completely either, as the psychologists explain. You have to judge for yourself and see where exactly the phrase is appropriate, depending on the person, your relationship with them and circumstances, too.

As Hall explains, you can sometimes use it as an opener. “It can be a gentle start. When approaching someone who might be struggling, ‘let me know’ can be a non-threatening way to show you're there for them. It avoids pressuring them to immediately articulate a specific need, which can be overwhelming during particularly difficult times,” she says. From experience, Samiramees Al-Hashmi, a Dubai-based entrepreneur echoes this sentiment, saying it is a “low-pressure” way of letting your friend know you are there for them. “Ultimately, it depends on your individual relationship and whether your friend interprets it as you mean it,” she says.

Stressed person
You offer help, they don’t take you up on your vague offer for good reason, and then silence. It cements the belief that you weren’t being sincere in the first place, Image Credit:

However, your tone, body language and non-verbal cues that indicate concern and care, also play a part here. If it’s just a line sent through a text message, the other person will probably dismiss it. Yet, if you are with the person, and say the words with some amount of concern, and more importantly, follow it up quickly with a specific offer and observation, it can hold meaning.

After saying ‘let me know’, you can add, “’I know you’re going through a lot. Can I just get you a coffee or some food’,” explains Bridges

If you’re uncertain about the exact nature of the problem, an open-ended ‘let me know’ works well, she adds. You can also pair the let me know with an offer. “For example, you can say, ‘I heard you've been swamped at work lately. Let me know if there's anything I can do to lighten your load, even if it's just running some errands’," says Bridges.

You can keep it as a starting point in situations, explain both the psychologists. It needs to be followed by a willingness to help whenever you can. “This goes a long way in showing you're sincere about offering support,” says Hall.

Perhaps, tweaking the phrase can help, too. People don’t take ‘can-I-help’ too seriously, adds Raksha Uttamchandani, a Dubai-based entrepreneur. As she says, the word, ‘how’ before the phrase can really make a difference as it shows that you have clear intent and will help regardless.

How you can actually offer support

It’s always the little things that matter. In my personal experience, I remember my friend who just quietly sent me a small panda mug and tea packets, while I was battling a particular bad bout of COVID-19. It meant far more than what words could have done in that deeply unpleasant and harrowing situation.

Offer concrete suggestions when a person is in need: For example, see how you can reduce their work for them. Image Credit: Shutterstock

You just show up for a person in a way that makes them feel cared for, says Bridges. “When someone is suffering, any sort of help is helpful. Yet, the most healing part is when you show the person that they are important to you. So, you go a little out of your way to do something that can help them. Think about what you can do, first: Don’t make promises that you can’t keep,” she warns. For instance, looking after the children for a day, or watering the plants, taking the dog for a walk, or even just sending them food, if needed.

"When you want to be involved in a task, it's best to propose how you might help rather than saying, 'I appreciate what you're doing. Let me know how I can be of help. We grow in our experience and knowledge when we take that extra step and stop waiting for others to 'let us know'," says Suhaimi. 

Offer specific support, explains Hall. Once you know what you need to do, make a clear offer. “I know fixing meals will be difficult right now. I’ll drop off some food,” she says, citing an example. By offering something specific, you are reducing the burden of thinking of an idea of how to help. They also don’t have to worry about you refusing, either.

Sometimes, just an emotional presence is enough. Care packages, or a text reminding that you’re there, can make a difference, says Bridges. This is particularly helpful if the person is too overwhelmed and can’t meet you immediately. They will remember the kindness that you showed.