“How are you?” The question that needs to change
Updated: Oct 7
“How are you?” It's the default question I have found myself beginning most phone calls, texts, Zoom chats and the first face-to-face conversations since lockdown. Even before lockdown for that matter. But does it offer us the opportunity to be open and honest with others, or even ourselves? Each time I ask the question, or it is sent back my way, it feels heavier. The stock responses are endless, and somewhat meaningless.
In The Book of Beautiful Questions, author Warren Berger puts forward the idea that conversations can be stunted from the off-set if the questions aren’t genuine.
“A rote question often evokes a rote answer followed by an echo of the original rote question (“How are you?” “Fine. How are you?”)”
So often we find ourselves in this very situation, where the opportunity to have meaningful dialogue and develop positive relationships is squandered because we glaze over the fundamental aspect of how we are feeling.
I’ve discussed this idea with friends recently and initially they were confused: “So what? I’m just asking them how they are doing!” It is only after I explained it further, that the cost of asking the same question over and over leads to the loss of meaning in the question, and ultimately a lack of connection between two people, that they saw my point. We’ve spent so long being locked down, that we ultimately realise that we are social beings; that craving to be out and about was also about being able to see other people and regularly connect on a variety of levels. Are we really going to come out of isolation and start off each interaction by asking a dull question? Now, more than ever, it is important to use language more purposefully.
Expanding our vocabulary and thinking was impressed upon us during our school years. When writing, teachers are requiring pupils to use words ‘instead of said’ to create more interesting dialogue, or the ‘anti-and’ requirement so sentences don’t go on for pages. When we step back and consider that pupils are regularly challenged in their use of language, it is also possible for us to reflect on how purposeful we are in our own use of words, phrases and questions.
While there isn’t anything wrong in asking a simple question of how someone is, consider what it is we are wanting to hear in response. Is it simply a passive conversation starter or are we genuinely invested in the individual. What we should be thinking about is are we interested or available in the answers that may come? Here are some considerations that can support you knowing where you might be ready for.
When broken down, this is simply about whether you are reachable to others; are ready to communicate on a deeper level; are prepared to listen to whatever response may come. Sitting with friends and listening to the comfortable or uncomfortable responses that will arise has immeasurable value. It is important to recognise that this doesn’t automatically have to be a one sided conversation or relationship - the dialogue that can arise from open and honest questions can fulfil the needs of all parties.
Often conversations of mental and emotional wellbeing can be deeply personal, where individuals open up in ways they may not normally do. This vulnerability needs to be recognised, often resulting in physical comforting or actions. Is this something you are prepared for? Would you normally act in this way for this person? If conversations are taking place through technology, the lack of physicality should be addressed in your responses when appropriate: share that you wish you could offer a hug, or supportive arm around them, but only if it is what you would normally do.
Got somewhere to be? Running late? Feeling busy? It is always best to commit to a conversation when you feel you have the time. There is nothing worse than opening up to another, when they ultimately let you down because they are pressed for time. This demonstrates that while you were asking a question and looking for a meaningful response, you aren’t actually prioritising it. Be honest with yourself first, how available you are at that moment? And if something comes up when you are giving the time to listen, make the commitment to come right back to that person and their wellbeing and always follow through.
With all this in mind, my friends were interested in what I thought might be more valuable questions. Naturally, this would vary on who you are asking - the person at the shop might not be inclined to answer when you ask about their feelings of loneliness during lockdown. However, don’t let that stop you from checking in with some of these instead:
What has your day been like so far?
Is there anything you are looking forward to at the moment?
How have you been looking after yourself recently?
What have you missed during lockdown?
When did you last have a good laugh? What was it?
Are you worried about anything just now?
So, next time you ask how your family, friends or the local checkout assistant are, mix it up, ask something a little different and enjoy the conversation that follows. You never know, you could give them the opportunity they have been searching for, and you might just make a connection that is infinitely more valuable. Read more about how to support a friend with anxiety.
Image copyright - Keeley Shaw