A Better Question Than ‘How Can I Help?’

Avoid creating emotional labor for the person you’re trying to help

Your co-worker is struggling, and you want to do something to support them. You fire up your workplace’s internal chat. “Just checking in!” you write. “Do you want to talk about it? What can I do?”

Before you award yourself the Nobel Peace Prize, take a step back.

Over the past month and a half, as millions took to the streets to express grief and pain following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Black people in workplaces around the country were bombarded with awkward inquiries from non-Black colleagues about how they were “holding up,” whether they were “okay,” and questions about what to do to “help.”

The reasoning behind the questions may seem totally sound — who could know better what your colleague needs than the person themself? But in asking, you’ve actually given them another task, and a difficult dilemma.

“When Black folks are faced with this open-ended question, we are faced with two impossible choices,” wrote Tiffany Dockery in ZORA. “Minimize our emotions for the sake of workplace civility or risk reopening an emotional wound we’ve been working hard to heal.”

Whatever the pain your colleague or friend is going through, asking them to tell you how to help them is asking them for emotional labor: It requires them to act as your manager, and adds yet another thing to their to-do list.

Whether your colleague is grappling with a personal problem or processing a shared trauma, remember that they’re probably emotionally taxed and stretched thin. If they brush you off with a polite “thanks, but no thanks,” they may genuinely not want your help. But they may well lack the bandwidth to figure out what they need done, and what you are truly able and willing to do. On top of that, they may not want to impose upon you, or risk an awkward situation by asking for too much.

What to do instead? Do some thinking before you reach out, then get more focused and practical. Try asking your colleague: “What task can I take off your plate?” By framing it in terms of their to-do list, you might make it easier for them to identify something pressing they’d be grateful to see the back of.

If you’re familiar with their workload, be even more specific: “Can I handle that for you?” If you need ideas, think about tasks they’ve mentioned not enjoying in the past, or anything that strikes you as particularly time-consuming and thankless. It could be anything from writing up meeting minutes to reclassifying files. Pick something you’re equally well qualified to do, then do it well. It should go without saying, but if they have to re-do the job once you’ve done it, it’s hardly a favor.

By offering a specific way that you can help, you’ve already made it easier from them to accept. More than that, you’ve demonstrated that you’re genuinely on board to do what’s required, and given them a sense of what you can reasonably take on. They may still decline, or ask for your support in some other way. Whatever their response, accept it gracefully and without judgment.

You can apply the same wisdom to supporting friends and family. Instead of waiting for them to come up with a way you can help them, suggest something tangible, whether it’s bringing over dinner (and doing the washing up) or taking on an evening of babysitting so that they can have some time to themself. Whatever you’re offering, give them a choice of dates and times, so they know it isn’t an empty promise.

Good intentions are just that — intentions. If we really want to help, we have to be prepared to do the work. That means taking responsibility for the entire supply chain of help, including the emotional and mental load of working out what would truly ease someone’s burden.

Journalist and writer.

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