What should you say when an employee is struggling at work, your friend or partner is going through a tough time, or your child is having a hard time in school or at sports? You can make nearly any situation better with this simple question: "What can I do to help?"

Although it may seem similar, this is not the same as saying something like "You can call me for help anytime," or "Let me know if I can help," or even "Can I help?" It's important to ask the question in this way. Here's why:

1. It makes it as easy as possible for the other person to accept help.

Most of us have a hard time asking for help, and even accepting help when it's offered. About a year ago, my husband Bill was in a very dark place after the death of his best friend, so much so that he refused to go to a weekly musician's gathering that he usually loves, and where all his other friends would be. 

I went by myself, and when people asked after him, I said that he was feeling down. Most people sent their well wishes. One friend asked what he could do to help. "I think he's feeling lonely," I said. The next day, that friend called Bill and took him out to lunch and a musical instrument store. Everyone wanted to help him, but one person took the initiative to find out exactly what he could do and then did it. I'll never forget that.

2. It skips over the question of whether you can or will help.

The problem with "Call me if I can help," is that it forces a person who's already in trouble to go through several potentially difficult steps before they get assistance. First, they have to determine whether you actually can help them. Then they have to figure out how. Then they have to wonder whether whatever they've come up with is something you're actually willing and able to do. Then, perhaps the hardest part, they have to reach out and ask you to do it, and risk feeling even worse if for some reason you say no. 

The question "How can I help?" does away with most of that. It assumes that 1) you're willing and able to help, and 2) you'll do what they ask if you can. If they ask something you can't or aren't willing to do, it suggests that you will try to come up with an alternative. It avoids anyone feeling bad about asking you for help, because they didn't ask you for help, they merely answered your question.

3. At the very least, it starts a useful conversation.

It could be that the person you offered to help isn't ready to accept your help, or wants something that you can't or don't want to provide. Still, by asking the question, you're starting a conversation about just what would help the other person handle their difficult situation, or perhaps get out of it. Even if the two of you can't come up with something helpful you can do, it will get you talking about why the situation is difficult, and even about what the person in trouble can do on their own to make things better. 

At the very least, by asking the question, you've demonstrated three things. First, that you care and want to help. Second, that you believe help is possible and that their bad situation can be improved. And third, that you're listening. That alone makes any problem better.