How many times a day do we hear this question? Five, ten, twenty times? It is the universal greeting. It is the cotton candy of greetings. And the typical response? Good or fine.
Why even ask? When we are greeting someone do we really want to have a conversation about how that person is doing? No. Maybe, but we are usually expecting the 30,000 foot response, not a detailed conversation. If it is a personal conversation, where we are one-on-one, and we are intent on sharing information, that is a different experience.
Mostly, we are just being quasi-friendly. As I watched several people recently to the perfunctory “How are you?” greeting, I wondered, how often do we really check on someone find out how they are?
We live in a time of fear, a pandemic, the gloom of the unknown and for some, the long-term fallout of financial uncertainty. As we see people at work, on the street, in the grocery store or the gas station, you can feel the hypertension.
In normal times, we are all busy with life, and increasingly stressed out with personal events, family events, work events, social media event and world events. Each of us on average are probably weighed down with more concerns. According to the World Happiness Report, the United States ranks number 19, just above Czechia. The report covers such things as real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, on a macro level, it is not a personal happiness index.
So the question I have is how often do you reach out to someone and specifically engage them in how they are doing? Do you give them the time and the opportunity to open up and talk? Granted, if you are standing in the aisle of the grocery store, that is not a good opportunity to have a personal conversation. Do you follow up with them, or suggest getting a cup of coffee or lunch? Personal connection is one of the most valuable ways of allowing someone to offload a feeling of overload or concern. You aren’t necessarily obligated to solve their problem or provide in-depth counseling, but you are showing concern and allowing them to talk, or ramble.
A conversation is a relief valve. Many people just want someone to listen. Not to judge, not to take over the conversation, just to show concern enough to allow them to feel safe and share. Not everyone is facing a problem or feeling depressed. They maybe overcome with choices or trying to figure out a course of action that could be a good thing. People dealing with opportunity or pleasant experiences also need compassion and an opportunity to share.
What is not helpful is someone who offers a conversation and then they take control of it and only talk about themselves. They are saying that they really want to talk about what is important to them. Maybe they need the compassion, but hijacking the conversation is bad ploy. Other people just tell you to get over it and that everyone has problems or stress. They are implying we are all the same and none of us deserve special kindness. Sure, we all must balance the competing demands and the wear and tear on our souls.
If I don’t ask about you, it does not mean that I am ignoring your health or happiness. I might be, but I could also be unsure what to say or even if I should say anything. We can be a very intrusive world and many people protect themselves behind walls of privacy. That’s fair. Generally, we have a good idea who we can or should approach with the intent of a personal conversation. That is no guarantee of that person opening up and offering to engage with you.
There was a classmate I knew from grade school, we were friend, though I had not seen her since high school. She was a bit of an enigma to me. She resurfaced in the past couple of years, moved back to the hometown, but mostly kept her distance from old friends. On her birthday, she took her life. This is hard to write. From what little I knew, her life was complicated, and she dealt with severe depression. Beyond that, I’d only be guessing. I know that folks reached out, but with limited success. So why is this important? Could there been a lifeline, something that might have prevented her from what she ultimately felt was her only choice? We only have so much power, so maybe nothing would have made a difference. We can offer kindness and compassion, whatever the situation. Those things alone can be a light. There is never enough light in the world.
Perhaps part of the answer is to not just be more compassionate, but to show and demonstrate it. Here are ten examples that I found from a variety of sources, these are not all mine, but I agree with each one.
Smile more. Your expression and manor are an advertisement, they radiate to others. Smiles, meaningful smiles, are disarming and allow people to open up to you.
Greet people with honesty and focus. This is where the greeting will open the door. What you say and how you say it will either allow the guard to come down or keep it raised. People know fake or insincerity. If your greeting is hallow, you’ll likely get the same kind of response.
Listen. You have two ears and one mouth, lead with your ears. It’s not all about you. And don’t be focused on what your answer will be until you’ve finished listening to what the person is saying. If someone perceives you are not listening, you probably are not.
Empathize. Empathy is hard for some folks. It is not the same as sympathizing. Empathy is understanding, not agreeing or endorsing. You may not understand their problem or situation, but you can respect how overwhelming it might be for them at the moment.
Relax your judgement. When you empathize, you also should relax your tendency to judge. You do not have to accept their reasoning or course of action, and you might have moral issues with their situation, but you are not forced to lead with it. Certainly, you might be able to explain a different view, but you will know whether that is appropriate later.
Demonstrate acceptance. When you are offering compassion, you are showing the person that they matter and their concerns or problems have validity. Perhaps you believe they are really out in left field or maybe emotions are clouding their logic. How are you going to help them talk through the cloud if you cannot engage with them in a way where they will open up and maybe accept some feedback? You are not their counselor, but you can be a friend.
Show kindness. What is kindness? Anything that is perceived as compassion or an act of connection with another person. Perhaps you are not engaging them in conversation, maybe you are just being friendly. We never know the kind of day someone is having. They might be a walking powder-keg of frustration or they’ve just had an awful conversation with someone. Allowing someone to cut in line ahead of you, or opening a door, or simply a kind word – all small things that do not cost a thing.
Demonstrate warmth. Warmth comes in many ways. The smile is a start. A welcoming tone to the voice, an embrace, a kind word. Your time and your interest are big demonstrators of warmth.
Follow up. Is there something you are helping them with? A follow up phone call or text shows that you haven’t forgotten. It can show compassion, encouragement and interest. The other person might be feeling unsure of whether they should have opened up to you. You can help them understand that it was the right thing to do, and you will respect what they shared with you.
Help them see hope. Hope can be the most valuable commodity in life, as important as air. Without hope, people give up or make bad choices. Hope comes from believing, and being able to look forward to something. It is hard to give another person hope, but you can support their quest for hope. What you are really giving them is someone besides themselves that believe in something positive in front of them. You can help them focus on it, whatever it is, clarify the path, and provide encouragement.
The next time you look someone in the eye, smile, and talk to them like they are the most important person in the world.