These are five words that have more power and potential than any five-word combination that I can imagine assembling. We are forever requesting and requiring actions from others. But with the posing of “How may I help you,” we are opening possibilities for doing good that exceeds any of our expectations.

Please note that I am intentional about selecting “may” instead of “can,” precisely because it requests permission rather than inquiring about the potential to assist. None of us generally want people to jump in and take over responsibilities from us, either in crisis situations or otherwise. But when you ask permission to help, you are respecting the other person’s preferences while offering your time and attention.

Nowhere do I see this as crucial as in the classroom. Little Johnny is having trouble with math problems. He scratches his head, chews on his pencil, destroys his eraser, and searches the skies for redemption. As a conscientious educator, I will likely ask, “Johnny, how may I assist you with your math?” Doing so gives him the option to explain his frustrations or simply ask, “How much is 21 divided by 7?”

Any alternative is unacceptable. Never will I walk up and say, “Johnny, 21 divided by 7 is 3.” Not only does that assume he doesn’t already know; but also, it removes the possibility of his solving the problem on his own.

This expression also works outside the educational setting. You’re walking through a grocery store and see someone looking high and low, displaying signs of curiosity or frustration. If you ask, “How may I help you?” you are offering escape from a troublesome situation without being insulting or intrusive.

The same is true when you see a partner or spouse creating a meal with some obvious difficulties. As an experienced cook, you are inclined to ask, “What’s the problem?” or “What’s wrong?” rather than, “How may I help you?” While the outcomes are the same, the methodology creates an entirely different tone.

And sometimes, people with challenges simply do not know how to ask for help. Rather than asking and appearing stupid, they will quit doing something or issue an expletive. No matter the cause, it’s likely to be a good idea to ask, “How may I help you?” if you are capable of helping. Shalom.

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