Why do we really ask “how are you?” Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry recently wrote in CNBC that these were “the three most useless words in the world of communication.”
This, Burnison argues, is because the person asking often doesn’t really want to know, and the person responding doesn’t tell the truth, and this results in a lost opportunity.
Certainly it is a lost opportunity for meaningful engagement, and if the stakes were high, like in a speed dating or business pitch environment, you might really have wasted precious time!
Yet we can actually want to know the answer, like when asking a good friend, or a child at the end of the day, or a partner. Given we are all trained in simply replying “fine thanks”, it can be hard to follow up. It can feel silly to emphasise “No, I really want to know”, because by then perhaps the moment has passed and the other person has already disengaged.
Our contribution to a good conversational engagement is many and varied. We can ask questions, make comments or jokes, show non-verbal indications like nodding, be quiet but attentive; there are a myriad of ways we can show interest and keep another talking, as well as get our own needs met, such as the need to be likable, and the need to be connected.
Yet we persist with the ubiquitous “how are you?” and still seem to hope for the best. We do this with random strangers and those intimate with us in equal proportions. It is a habit, and bears no relation to whether we really, truly want to know how the person is at all. Indeed, sometimes if someone answers at length, it can be a surprise – either pleasant or annoying! Some both ask and answer: “how are you? – good?” which is very dismissing in one way, but it also calls out that this is a greeting only, not to be taken as a real check in on someone’s health.
Why have R U OK? Day – September 10, 2020
The reason we have R U OK? Day is because we either don’t ask people in our everyday lives how they really are, or we let these empty check-ins be sufficient. Many with mental health issues are suffering in silence, unable to open up or not confident of the response they will get if they do.
We can be afraid to deeply ask, in case we quickly get out of our depth, overwhelmed by personal information or details that make us feel helpless and hopeless. We might worry we will be left carrying confidences that make us uncomfortable. We might be worried that an argument might ensue.
We might tell ourselves that it’s not really our problem. Perhaps you believe their mother/husband/best friend should have asked them what’s happening, not you. So often therefore, we might take our good intentions and do something else, like take the person out for a drink or a social gathering, to cheer them up or try in some way to move the problem on. That can make us feel like we have done our duty, and sometimes that works a bit, but at other times we may not have achieved enough.
How can we start to do this differently?
- Get your head on straight. What are you trying to achieve, and how important is the person to you? Does the relationship deserve more of your time and attention?
- Break the habit. Try not to participate in empty, rote conversation. You’ll feel better for it. If you want to acknowledge the person you are speaking to, try something more specific to the context. Perhaps “how is your day going?” Even the fact that it is a different question to the usual and drawing attention in a new direction could lead to a better exchange.
- Emphasise your genuineness (if you are!) With a partner or friend for example, creating more of a moment in the conversation where you more directly say “You have been on my mind. I have been wondering how you have been going” will feel more impactful and intimate and might get a richer answer.
- Join the dots. R U OK Day is about really, thoroughly checking in on people who may be struggling. Starting with some observations for context can mean you can ask the same question but it is already pitched differently. For example, “I have noticed you seem more withdrawn and haven’t come to the last few catch ups. How are you?”
- Follow up with more questions. A recent study by Harvard researchers Huang et al (2017) entitled It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking explores the different ways in which people can successfully engage in conversation. The research demonstrated that asking follow up questions can be the difference between a good conversation, meaning one that is engaged, deeper, more memorable, and a passing moment easily forgotten. Making enquiries or asking for details, keeping the person talking which shows interest and leads to more disclosures.
It is not your job to be a friend’s or family member’s counsellor, so if you do find someone struggling, connect them to help and keep checking in.
Relationships Australia NSW offers a wide ranges of support services to help you and your loved ones. For those who might be in a role at work or in their community where they regularly find themselves receiving disclosures – perhaps if you are a teacher, nurse, HR professional, religious or community leader – and where it can be hard to know what to say, how to respond, and how to make sure you don’t take on too much of an emotional responsibility, we have an online live workshop called “Accidental Counsellor”.
For more information on this course, visit: www.relationshipsnsw.org.au (under Professional Training) or call 1300364277.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.