How can I offer help without offending family members and friends?
December 1993

“How can I offer help without offending family members and friends?” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 59–60

I’m pained to see family members and friends suffer from personal problems they seem oblivious to. How can I offer help without offending them?

J. Brad Burton, staff development trainer, LDS Social Services, and executive secretary, Provo Utah North Stake. Service to God and our fellowmen lies at the heart of Church doctrine and practice. Our responsibilities in this area include loving our neighbor, bearing one another’s burdens and comforting those in need, visiting the fatherless and widows, and praying for “the welfare of … those who [know] not God.” (Alma 6:6; see also Matt. 22:39; Mosiah 18:8–9; James 1:27.)

The teachings of Jesus are replete with parables and other instruction on reaching out to others and blessing their lives; and his mortal life epitomized such service. By helping those around us, we not only serve the Lord but also become instruments through whom he can watch over his children and meet their needs. (See “President Kimball Speaks Out on Service to Others,” New Era, March 1981, p. 47.)

However, helping others can be complicated, often requiring a particular approach or special skills to be effective. Others’ problems—ranging from poor manners, grooming, and social skills to behavioral quirks and undesirable personality traits—may not be as invisible to them as we might think. They may privately agonize over these problems and the consequent social penalties and yet feel powerless to change.

Intervening in the life of a troubled friend or family member who may not want help, and doing so without offending the person, is a delicate matter. The following points can help us reach out to others sensitively, with less chance of giving offense.

Build rapport. Trust, warmth, understanding, and mutual esteem are essential elements in a relationship where one wishes to positively influence another. A person who feels understood and accepted is generally less defensive about his or her weaknesses or problems and is more open to suggestions and influence. In addition, we learn from behavioral science that people are most likely to change their behavior when they like the person helping them, and perceive him or her to be similar to themselves. If a relationship lacks those qualities, proffered help stands a good chance of being perceived as an intrusion to be repulsed.

Be compassionate, not judgmental. Before offering someone help, it is important that we assess our motives. The Savior counsels us to remove the beam from our own eye before we presume to remove the mote in our neighbor’s. (See Matt. 7:3.) As we do, we will be able to see clearly the needs of others and provide help based upon compassion rather than upon self-aggrandizement or a desire to control.

In regard to having the proper attitude toward those in need, the Prophet Joseph Smith observed: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 241.) If our desire to help is motivated by this kind of genuine caring, it is unlikely that we will alienate or offend the person in need.

Respect the person’s agency. It is difficult to see family members or others we love live in ways that may be spiritually, emotionally, or physically damaging. Of course, we want them to be happy, fulfilled, and firmly rooted in the gospel. However, in trying to help, we need to remember that although we can influence others, we cannot control their choices.

Our influence should be expressed through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. (See D&C 121:41.) We should neither demand nor expect a particular outcome, but should respect the person’s right to decide. When initiating help, we respect the person’s agency by reaffirming our love for him or her, asking permission to share our concerns, and receiving the person’s consent before proceeding further. Our acceptance of the person, despite his or her response to our request, communicates our love for the person, and this nurtures and strengthens the relationship.

Offer observations and suggestions rather than advice. Suggestions and advice may sound the same, but in reality they are quite different. A suggestion is a possibility to be considered by the person, who is free to accept or reject it. (We might begin a suggestion with a phrase like, “You may want to consider … ,” “How would you feel about … ?” or “I wonder if it would help to …”) On the other hand, advice implies that one person has information that the other does not possess, but needs and should accept. Advice prefaced by phrases like “You should …” or “If I were you …” can rub people the wrong way; it resembles lecturing and dictating and is often rejected outright. In addition, it may encourage dependency rather than personal responsibility.

Use a firm, loving approach for serious behavior problems. Occasionally a family member or friend may be caught in a destructive habit (a chemical or other addiction, for instance) in which fear, embarrassment, or denial prevents him or her from seeking help. Moreover, it is not uncommon for persons thus afflicted to resist overtures of help. In such cases a firm, loving approach usually is best.

To be firm is not to be authoritarian, punitive, or cruelly insensitive. Rather, it means providing a clear, straightforward message that you love the person, that the consequences of his or her behavior are serious, and that he or she needs help. President Brigham Young captured the spirit of this principle when he counseled, “If you are ever called upon to chasten a person, never chasten beyond the balm you have within you to bind up.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 278.) Of course, such a forthright course is a last resort, one best undertaken after prolonged, prayerful consideration or handled by an inspired priesthood leader or a qualified professional.

In severe cases a person may be so resistant to help that assistance is needed. One approach that some have found to be effective in helping those with serious problems is “family intervention.” In brief, a group of family members or others close to and respected by the person arrange a treatment program under the direction of an experienced specialist. After carefully planning and rehearsing a meeting designed to help the person accept treatment, the group invites the person to the meeting. With love and reassurance, the group members discuss the behavior they have observed, how they feel about it, and the harm it entails. The specialist then describes the treatment program and the probable adverse consequences of rejecting it. When well planned and conducted, this approach can greatly benefit those whose lives are out of control.

Generally speaking, people respond favorably to those who are kind, nonjudgmental, and genuinely concerned and motivated to help them. Not surprisingly, counsel from those who misguidedly set about to change people’s behavior or solve their problems is often flatly rejected. Hopefully, these guidelines will be of benefit as we reach out to others truly in need of our help.

Photography by John Luke