How are you?
"How are you?" - It's such a simple question. Catch me on a good day and you will probably get the typical American response, "fine" or "good". Catch me on a bad day and you might hear, "What do you mean?" or "I don't understand the question.". I will probably start shifting anxiously in my chair. In my head I will be frantically asking myself, "Do they mean personally or professionally?" or "Do I tell the truth or bottle up everything inside?". On those days, the question itself could warrant a bucket filled with crocodile tears and more of an answer than you bargained for. But it's not about the words themselves, it's about how they hit your heart at a given moment.
Why am I talking about this? I was speaking to a group of people the other night and they told me that they hated it when their bosses asked them, "How are you?". That's weird, right? I decided to dig a little further... It's because it requires either too superficial or too personal of a response. If it's the former, it is a cultural nicety that seems like a waste of time. If it is the latter, the explanation was that no one wants to cry at work - and if there is something going on in our personal lives, that outcome might be inevitable. Employees don't necessarily want that.
I'm giving you the problem (which you know I hate to focus on), so I also asked the same group of individuals what they would like to hear instead. Let's take a look:
On a scale from 1 to 10
One of the individuals told me that they once had a boss who would start a 1:1 with the following question: "On a scale from 1 to 10, tell me how you are doing, but you can't use the number 7." Apparently seven is the number equivalent of "fine" or "good". The boss removed the number 7 so that he/she had a more accurate representation of how the individual was doing. If it was an 8 or higher, that was positive. If it was a 6 or below, the boss knew to dig further.
I'll be honest and say that this particular solution isn't my style, but if data is what you are after, I say, have at it. The next one feels more natural to me.
Reference something specific
Did you find out in your last meeting that your employee is selling their house? Did they celebrate their dad's 70th birthday? Did they attend a funeral or have a reunion with their estranged family member? Are they struggling to pull slides together for a big presentation? Talk to specific things they divulged in a previous 1:1.
This can look something like, "Tell me how your son's birthday party was! I imagine you spent most of the weekend prepping for it. Were you able to enjoy it?" or "I know you have been a little frustrated with the preparations for Friday's presentation. How is that coming along? How can I help set you up for success?".
You might think it sounds silly but taking notes and referring to things they said in a previous meeting shows your employees that you are listening to them. This, in turn, makes them feel valued and even shows them that you care. This feels most natural to me, but the next one is definitely something that I would gladly incorporate on occasion.
What’s the weather like?
I laughed so hard the first time I heard a boss ask me this. It was right after we had gone through the umpteenth round of proposal preparations and pitches to a client - disheartened might be a good word to describe the team at this point. We got on the phone to debrief after our client call when we heard, “So what’s the weather like where everyone is at?”. He was most certainly not referring to the actual weather, he meant our moods. I can tell you one thing: It brought a smile (if not laughter) to everyone’s faces and then we went around the [virtual] room describing our moods with weather patterns.
When you feel like your team is in a rut it is always a good idea to shake things up. It was a silly exercise to hear how people were doing without them having to be explicit. I think if I catch myself in a similar situation one day, I will pull out the weather card. Why? Stormy and chilly weather is snow laughing matter.
Pick up on social cues
Is your colleague more reserved today? Less bubbly? Guarded? Overly energetic? Grinning from ear to ear? Whatever you might be seeing, if you pick up on it, say something. This could sound like, "I'm noticing you seem very energetic today. Your happiness is contagious. Is there something exciting happening in your life?" or "You are very quiet today, which is out of character for you. Is something going on? You don't need to feel obligated to share but know this is a safe space if you want to talk."
Your colleagues may not want to talk about whatever is on their mind, so you will need to respect that. Simply asking those types of questions shows them that you care. If they are going through a rough time, it can make them feel like they aren't alone (even if they don't want to talk).
At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself what you are trying to achieve by asking that oh-so-simple question. Whatever the reason, I want to remind you that the question itself can warrant a superficial or overly personal response, and as humans we need to be prepared to receive either.
To all people everywhere: My goal here is not to remove the sentence, "How are you?", from your daily interactions, so please do not misinterpret this blog. I do strive to give you the tools you need to try a different approach if you feel like you are not connecting with your people.
We all can use some silly things to change up our day-to-day routine. That is why I authored the cutest children's book and first book about A Stay-at-Home Dad? Go and grab your copy today!