Please think twice before you ask this question

Andrea Howe
Category : Weekly-ish tips February 2, 2021

This post is part of our Weekly-ish Tips series.

There’s a particular question that I have come to hate being asked, starting in about March of 2020. I resist it slightly less now, but only slightly. I’m sharing my further reflections on the matter, not because I like to divulge my idiosyncrasies on these pages (though there is that), or because these Weekly Tips are sometimes my public therapy journal (that, too), but because I think it really matters in terms of how we’re connecting with each other these days—or not.

The question is so seemingly benign.

The question is so habitual for just about everyone I know in the U.S.

The question is generally so well-meaning.

The question is, “How are you?”

In the early days of the pandemic, I encouraged every professional I knew to redirect their own worries and fears into generous acts, including finding ways to reach out to people simply for the sake of being in touch. I suggested one of seven ninja tips for those personal reach-outs was to replace, “How are you?” with “How are you today?” or “How are you right now/in this moment?” for two reasons:

  1. In U.S. culture, “How are you?” is a casual phrase that often isn’t even a prompt for a reply—in other words, it’s an auto-pilot kind of thing that isn’t well suited for a non-auto-pilot kind of time.
  2. We all know how most of us were doing right about the second quarter of last year (pretty sucky, at least at some point in the day or week) which renders the well-meaning but generic question tone deaf.

That’s why I urged us all to apply what Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg taught us while she was grieving for her late husband—i.e., get more specific to transcend the risk of superficiality and disconnect.

It’s many months later. A lot of us have adjusted to some kind of new normal, whatever that means. Some of us are worse than we were a year ago, some of us are better, though regardless of your baseline state (if there is such a thing), it can still change moment to moment or day to day. Personally, I’m having more good days than bad right now, and I’ve even had a few multi-day stretches of unbridled optimism, but life still feels like a roller coaster for a variety of reasons. Unless I missed an important update, the pandemic is still on and racial justice is still elusive, among other things. Which means there’s still grieving to be done in a “both/and” kind of way.

So, while “How are you?” isn’t as routinely loaded for me, it still bugs me more often than it doesn’t. If you ask it of me, there’s a good chance my reply will be, “That’s a loaded question,” or, “Fine” and then I’ll move on to something else.

Here’s what has just come into focus, now that I’ve written all this out: “Small talk” can actually be good for relationships (“How is the weather?”). As can deep and meaningful conversations (“How are you for real?”). It’s the muddled/in between that’s problematic.

This is my plea: Be clear about what you’re going for and use the best prompts accordingly.

Make It Real

This week, be more intentional about how you start your conversations, and test out some alternatives to, “How are you?” What do you discover?

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Andrea Howe

Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).

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