In a year where everyone is most certainly not fine, we sure do a whole lot of saying we are.
And I get it. When I get on yet another Zoom call and the person asks, “How are you?” saying “I’m fine, how are you?” is the simplest, politest answer.
After all, “I’m stuck in a despondent cycle of fear, isolation, despair, and sweatpants” is probably not the most effective way to start a meeting.
The problem is, that’s exactly how we are starting our meetings. We’ve just suppressed all those unwieldy feelings down into our sweatpants.
That’s not great for many reasons. For my work, especially when I am mentoring or leading a team, it is important to me to meet people where they are, to make genuine connections, and to really understand how they are doing.
So, Angela, how are you doing?
I’m an extroverted introvert, and these days, even my introvert is begging for more connection. But it is wildly difficult to get that level of connection, especially when we all ride a daily, endless carousel of video calls for all our connections. I’m also getting increasingly annoyed with myself when I boil all my 2020-2021 emotions down to “I’m fine”.
And so, in an era where too much feels outside my control, I’ve been reflecting on what I can do to readily reengage with people over video calls. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Change the questions
I’ve been experimenting with alternative questions to, “How are you?”. So far, the best responses come when I add more effort to my question, and give it more specificity.
The simplest change that I’m regularly using is to add a time frame, such as:
- How has today been?
- What do you have planned for tomorrow?
- What did you do over the weekend?
This results in more forthcoming, complete responses, as a stressful day tends to be less complicated to express than a stressful year. Recent or planned time bound activities tend to be more top of mind and more effortless to share.
Sometimes, I’ll tailor the question to the person. If I’m more familiar with them, or if I know something specific that happened to them recently, I’ll start there. For example:
- I saw on Instagram that you got a new puppy! How are they adjusting to the family?
- You’re right in the middle of a huge project! What’s your main focus right now?
- You’ve been having such a hard time lately. I’m here for you. Would it be helpful to talk about what you are going through?
By focusing on something closer to the person, I’m more likely to get a more comprehensive answer, especially if the person feels comfortable sharing. On the flip side, I love getting questions like this, because I feel like the person is truly interested in learning more about me.
The last thing I’ve been trying out, especially with those who are feeling particularly impacted by COVID, is to give people the space to talk about it. Again, I’ve been approaching that through more specific questions.
- I read that [area] is having another resurgence of COVID and I know you’re right in the center of that. I care about you and am wondering how you’re impacted by the local situation.
- You’re so close to your family, how are you feeling about the safety measures they’ve taken?
- We recently crossed one full year of living in a pandemic, how did that “anniversary” impact you?
Again, I love when people ask me these questions because they make me feel cared for! In particular, that last question around how one year of pandemic affected people generated some really emotional, thoughtful, reflective answers.
Put in effort, get the results
You might be thinking that some of these questions seem so specific, how could I possibly learn how people actually are feeling after asking them. You’re probably right in that I don’t learn EVERYTHING that they are feeling (friendly reminder: people are complex creatures). But I sure do get more thorough answers, colored in tone and description. All of this brings me closer to how someone is feeling, even on a video call, and makes for a great foundation for even more conversation and connection.