How do you connect with people in your community?  I’m thinking neighbors, potential investigators, even local school and government leaders. It’s not always easy, but the topic came up in my last meeting of the Stake Communications Council. We want to develop relationships with elected leaders and our Director, Jan Pinney, gave us a marvelous tip. He told us to ask, “How can I help?”

Yep. That simple. People serving the community need volunteers. It may be to hand out leaflets, make calls, show up at an event, donate time or resources—there’s a long list of ways people can help them. And when we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and put action behind our words, they know we’re sincere. They know we’re people they can count on. Bonds and relationships grow.

And it hit me: This is also how we’re supposed to pray. We grow up learning to give thanks and then ask for things. Rarely do we spend as much time thanking as pleading. And, of course, Heavenly Father does want us to ask for our righteous desires. But He also wants us to help with His goals—and needs to train us for heaven by giving us chances to help—so we ought to include that essential question in our prayers when we can. How can I help is the least we can do for the God who literally gives us everything.

But there’s more. I’ve used this question, silently in my mind, when I’ve traveled and it makes all the difference in my enjoyment of the trip. Even a dreaded work trip becomes a joy when you look at other people and think that question to yourself. You look for others who need directions, a seat on the train, encouragement with their toddler, a smile or a conversation. You can hold a door, or carry a heavy load. People are in need all around us. When we tune in to be of service, we see them smile and soften. We send them on their way knowing somebody cares. We feel useful.

It can also open the door to missionary work. I’ve seen so many people with furrowed brows and discouraged expressions. By chatting with them I’ve often discovered they really are searching for meaning. Why are they here and what’s life all about? Where did they come from and where are they going? Is life just a long grind until you die?  “How can I help?” comes from a place of love. People sense this and open up.

Let’s say you have a difficult neighbor. Maybe they have a barking dog, loud parties, a messy yard, rude kids, whatever the problem is. Instead of seeing them as combatants and approaching an enemy, what if you mentally asked yourself how you could help them. Would they like you to help bring in their garbage cans? Could you offer to take the kids to school?  Is there something wonderful about their kids that you could notice and compliment? What if you made friends with their dog so you could comfort it through the fence when they’re away? This actually can work, by the way. When we become an ally, a friend, they see us differently. They want to work with us to solve problems.

Is there contention at work? Try asking this question to employees and bosses alike. You’ll be amazed at how appreciative they are. Not only are you willing to lighten their load, but you see them and care. You notice there’s a need.  Few people ever do this.

How about your church calling?  Are you willing to let the Lord stretch you and build you?  Do you approach your tasks trying to find ways you can help, and make a difference? “How can I help?” would be a question any bishop would welcome.

Now let’s bring it home. Every family has difficulties, every family is messy, if you really know the truth. And, instead of quarreling or accusing or resenting, what if you sat down with the person you’re mad at, and simply asked, “How can I help?”  You might hear a litany of complaints about yourself, but guess what? Now you can address them. You can admit shortcomings, pledge to work and change, then reconnect to assess. Who wouldn’t love someone this sincere in their family? Your best chance of getting someone else to change is if you change. It builds the kind of gratitude that motivates others to improve as well.

Last, I want you to try an experiment. Next time you’re frazzled, embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, angry— find a private bathroom with a mirror. Look at your reflection, see the real you inside, and ask, “How can I help?”  So many times we beat ourselves up, we hold ourselves to impossible standards, we blame ourselves for things that are not our fault. We expect to fix everything. We compare ourselves and come up lacking. And just maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to rest and restore. We need to remember how much Heavenly Father loves us. We need to take a breath and recall the good we’ve done in life. We need to pray and feel comfort again.

Maybe the help we can give ourselves is to make a needed change. Take steps to conquer an addiction. Stop wasting time. Really listen to others. Do something you’ve been putting off. Serve someone else. Sacrifice something selfish. Get to the temple. You know where work needs to be done—we all have areas where we can make changes that will bless our lives and bring a smile back to our faces.

It’s just four little words. But they apply to nearly everything you can imagine.

Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Inter-Faith Specialist for Church Communications.