How May I Help You?

I spent much of September, October, and November traveling. My rollator and I saw the world. (I’m delighted to be back in my office.)

One question I hear a lot is “May I help you?” That question is often followed by someone grabbing the top bar of my rollator to “help” me up a ramp, or yanking the rollator open instead of using the easy-to-flip latch. People mean well. They don’t realize the physics or how the rollator works. (For explanation, the top bar is a back support. No matter how hard you yank, the bar does not lift the rollator. And, the latch-flipping allows me to open and close the rollator. When people yank it open, the wrong side separates.)

It’s a problem. I look like a LOL (little old lady) until people see me walk with my rollator. I have a terrific long stride. (Okay, long for me.) And, I move pretty fast when I’m not worried about falling over. 

People see me and jump to a conclusion about my state. They assume I need help—from them, right now. They inflict help on me.

That happens at work and in life for you, too.

A number of my clients have managers who proclaim, “You have too many meetings.” Maybe the teams and project/program managers do. And, maybe, just maybe, these people need to meet in order to determine how to solve problems, what to do next, or because they want to connect. 

Sometimes, managers decide who will be on a team instead of asking, “Do you need more people? Who do you want?” Sometimes, managers decide one project needs more people and they pluck someone from one team and add that person to a different team—all without asking the person or the teams.

Software product development is a collaborative game. So is much of life. We need to talk to and with each other when we collaborate. We need teams that jell, not teams that have no way to jell because of timezones or personality issues. We need teams that stay together for a while. 

When people jump to a conclusion about my ability to walk or your need for meetings or people, they have diagnosed a problem in their minds. They decide what you need to do. They inflict help, as opposed to offering help.

Instead of deciding what you need to do for a person, consider asking the “how may I help you” question instead of the “may I help you” question, or imposing help. It’s just one word, and it changes the circumstances.  

When you ask, “How may I help you?” you offer the other person a chance to use you as part of their support system. You’re not assuming anything about their capabilities or decision-making. It’s an offer.

It might not sound that different from, “May I help you?” It feels different to me.

Adaptable leaders, that is the question of the week: How may I help you?

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