Good: “What can I do to help? Can I do anything to help?”
Better: “Can I [something specific] for you?”
Best: “I am going to [do something specific] for you, if that’s ok.”
When someone is suffering psychologically and/or physically, an open-ended question is often experienced as an invitation to do more work, when the aim and object of help is to lessen the work that the person needs to do. Besides this, if someone is ill or experiencing severe anxiety or other related maladies, this question is so often unanswerable! Especially for women, when a man asks this question it more often than not figures itself as yet another way in which labor must be expended to sustain this relationship— it’s a gift with strings attached. It isn’t always explicitly gendered, but when it is, it’s worse.
This is predicated on your ability to apprehend what it is that the person you’re trying to help might need. They might’ve communicated it to you, explicitly or implicitly— either way you might not have “caught it.” This is why paying attention, the labor of apprehending people, is so important: we need to cultivate our ability to really ~see~ before and so that we can actually be of help to them.
Note: this can also take the form of “Can I do [X, Y or Z] for you?” Preferably if X, Y or Z are all three things that you know this person could use help with— not a willy nilly off-the-top-of-your-head list of possible needs: again: that’s more work for the person you’re “helping.” A lot of folks, and from what I understand many neuroatypical folk, can’t deal with a shit-ton of choose your own adventure options in this sort of situation, so I advise that you keep it simple.
More than number two, this one is predicated on intimate knowledge– a learned, habitual history with someone: I know you often need X in these sort of situations, so I will go ahead and offer X. To the intimate relationship this can come across as very comforting— to the not-so intimate relationship I imagine this can feel or be very intrusive. Still, I do think of it as a risk you take— if you *really* want to help.
Important: you not only have to be comfortable with a “no,” but you have to make it visible to that person— to have done the work of making it visible to that person— so that they know that you are comfortable with telling you no. The work and anxiety of being afraid to say no to offered help simply negates said help.
Too often the refusal of help becomes the site of punishment and more labor on behalf of the would-be help-receiver. This is also very very gendered: too often men punish women for not “taking them up” on their “help,” because we don’t understand the extent to which in many cases every step of the “help offering” process is plagued either with more work for them, or anxiety at the spectre of more work or worse: punishment.
All of this is to say: it isn’t simply a matter of HOW you say what you say. It isn’t a matter of *simply* wording something right: it is a matter of apprehending that person and apprehending the nature of your relationship with that person, both personally AND structurally, and the relationship of that apprehension to your language.
The work of apprehending that person is difficult work, especially because patriarchy especially works to cloud our vision on this matter: way too often— and I mean like, cliche often— the would-be man-helper relies on a weird mix of a lifetime of over-affirmation and his “good intentions.” This isn’t simply good enough, it’s less than that: it’s violence.
But there is something that feels luckily true about “starting” with the way you say something: if you think about how you are saying something, it can often lead you back to the reasons you say things, and then ultimately to cultivating better practices of apprehending folks. That is to say (in academic language (sorry)): the relationship between how you say what you say and your in/ability to apprehend people is dialectical. They are two things that are woven, braided together by a host of factors. This makes it feel complicated, which makes sense if we’re talking about the dialectic, but it leads us back to the simple point: THINKING about how you say what you say and then putting the fruit of that labor into PRACTICE helps you help people, which helps you see them, which helps you help them, which helps you see them, etc.