“How are you?” has become a default greeting and a way to make small talk. How can we start really listening to each other a little more?
Gary Burnison, CEO of organisational consultancy Korn Ferry, calls “how are you?” the “three most useless words in the world of communication.” This, he argues, is because the person asking often doesn’t really want to know, and the person responding doesn’t tell the truth. This results in a lost opportunity for meaningful engagement.
Often, we really want to know the truthful, unfiltered answer, like when asking a good friend, partner, or child at the end of the day. Given we are all trained to simply reply “fine, thanks,” it can be hard to follow up. It might feel silly to emphasise “no, I really want to know,” because by then, the moment may have passed, and the other person has already disengaged.
Good conversations usually include people asking questions, making comments or jokes, showing non-verbal indications like nodding, and being quiet but attentive.
Yet we persist with the ubiquitous “how are you?” and hope for the best. We do this with random strangers and those intimate with us in equal proportions. It’s a habit and doesn’t reflect whether we genuinely 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 can feel dismissive. But it also calls out that this is a greeting only, not to be taken as a real check in on someone’s wellbeing.
Why have R U OK Day?
The reason we have a day like R U OK each year is because we either don’t ask people in our lives how they really are, or we let these empty check-ins be sufficient. Many people with mental health issues are suffering in silence, unable to open up, or lack confidence in the response they will get if they do answer truthfully.
We can be afraid to deeply ask, in case we quickly get out of our depth, feel overwhelmed by personal information or uncover details that make us feel helpless and hopeless. We might worry we’ll 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 or best friend should have asked them what’s happening, not you. Often, 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 isn’t a long-term solution.
So – how can we start to ask, “how are you?” and really mean it?
Think about the outcome
It’s worth considering what you’re trying to achieve, and how important the person is to you. Does the relationship deserve more of your time and attention? Be clear on whether you are using “how are you?” as a greeting, or if you really want to know how they are,
Break the habit of empty conversation
Try not to participate in empty 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’s a different question to the usual, and drawing attention in a new direction, could lead to a better exchange.
Emphasise your genuineness
With a partner or friend for example, creating more of a moment in the conversation where you more directly say “you’ve been on my mind, and I’ve been wondering how you’re going” will feel more impactful and intimate and get a richer answer.
State your observations
R U OK? Day is about really, thoroughly checking 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’ve noticed you seem more withdrawn and haven’t come to the last few catch ups. How are you?”
Follow up with more questions
In a recent Harvard study, researchers studied different ways people can successfully engage in conversation. They demonstrated that asking follow-up questions can often be what makes a conversation good – meaning one that is engaged, deeper and more memorable. Making enquiries – “tell me more” – or asking for details, keeping the person talking, all shows interest and leads to more disclosures.
Remember your role
It’s 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.