Author-Jack-SpeerYikes! Be careful when someone asks you the question, “How are you?”  It can be a very loaded question.  Yet it is an important question.  Used effectively, it can take the pulse of the person you’re talking to.

As a leader in your organization, you need to take it often.  You can’t assume you know how people around you are reacting to their environment and your leadership.

Yet it’s a truly tricky question and it might be downright dangerous.  We all know most of the time “how are you” is just a greeting, with no intention of asking for any real information.  You might want to tell them how you really are, but do people really want to know?  We often dread getting trapped in a long boring conversation.  Or they may say something pretty awful to you, people being people.  You have to be really careful.

So most of the time my personal strategy is to  . . .

. . . duck my head,

. . . avoid eye contact,

. . . visualize in my mind something like dancing bears or world peace—anything to distract myself . . . and say . . .

“I’m just fine.”  Then move on.

But you know, I really hate “just fine,” if that’s where the conversation ends.  It doesn’t take anyone’s pulse, if it’s just left there.

Admittedly, this answer, “I’m just fine,” is three words, very compact, and saves lots of time.  It avoids the mutually sharing of information on the latest aches, pains and problems.  It may save you from a verbal attack on people at work or home you need to get along with.  It may also rescue you from listening to a political diatribe from someone who turns red faced and gets you onto their email lists with updates every day.

Yet the answer, “I’m fine,” while it lets both us off the hook, makes us as people superficial and perfunctory, and about as boring as we can be.  The person could be on the brink of a new discovery—or the brink of despair, when we could help.

My personal decision is that I want to have conversations that go deeper than, “How are you?  –followed by, “Just fine.  As I leader, I need to connect with you.  How are you? Is a good place to begin, but in a world of teams I need to know what’s going on in your life and how can I support you.

Here are some steps I’ve developed to get beyond “How are you?”

  1. Begin with a question that allows the person to respond and feel safe. Ask the something neutral, but engaging.  What do you think of the breakroom remodel? When are you taking your vacation?  Establish an immediate commonality.
  2. Ask about something you know they’re interested in that generates their response. A leader goes beyond others might do.  I want to know that the person is part of a band, and ask them where it’s played lately?  Cars? Fishing? Children?  I always try to take some notes on my iPhone pad, so the next time I talk to them I have what we talked about the last time.
  3. Empathize with those who have problems. When people gain confidence in you, that you are trusted, they begin to share all sorts of personal things, sick children, their own health problems,, divorce, financial problems, and other personal    Never duck, always respond.  Often, saying I’m sorry is the only thing you can do, but always be asking yourself, “What would I most appreciate from others if this were happening to me?”  Connect with your feelings.
  4. Have your own question of the day that gets beyond “How are You?  I had a board member once who said he did “curb side research.”  He formulated a question that he wanted to know, and he would say to people he talked to, “You know, I’ve been asking a bunch of people, and I’d like to know what you think.”  The person he was talking to immediately felt included and wise.  The question could be, “What do you think of the CEO’s new strategic direction?”  What kind of job do you think the company is doing on recruiting?”  These questions will get you the person’s best thinking.
  5. Step away from monologuers and people who aren’t interested in you, don’t what you think, or really anything in your life. A few people may be worth a “how are you? but that’s about enough conversation with someone who truly isn’t interested in you.   My time is way more worth than talking them these folks.  I’m totally burned out in propping up one sided conversations with questions.  You ask, “How is your mom?” and that conversation could last for half an hour of monologue.  Throw in a reference to your own mom, and you get a nano-second, uh-huh, and then back to their concerns.Then there’s the person who gives you the look of a manikin who hasn’t been taken out of the store window for a very long time.  There seems to be little to no pulse in them. They’re not worth the precious seconds of your life

So how do you get past “How are You?”  People need to connect, but it’s a difficult process, especially if you are a leader.  Getting deeper is a true key to leading people.