Today we want to offer a makeover to the standard question, “How are you?” We ask this question with such regularity that most of us pick from a standard set of responses, with very little thought. Our standard responses? Busy. Fine. Okay. Good.
It’s time “How are you?” got a makeover. Ask better questions to build stronger relationships!
The only reason most of us ask this question is because it would appear impolite not to ask. We usually ask it as a greeting rather than with the intent of actually acquiring information about the other person.
Why bother asking a question that is almost guaranteed to generate no new information? That’s why this question, “How are you?,” is in need of a makeover. If you’re greeting someone you truly care about, greet them in a way that shows you are genuinely asking about their life. Better yet, greet them in a way that shows genuine care AND leads to new information that can inspire positive action.
We offer five alternative questions below.All five are positive – focused either on highlighting the best of the past or inviting the responder to identify a positive future. All five are information-seeking: listen closely, and you will learn something about that person’s life, character, and ideas. All five are initial questions, appropriate for a relatively fast greeting or for sparking a short conversation. And finally, the five questions can’t be answered with a one-word response (Yes, No, Busy, Fine), which invites engagement. Here they are:
#1. What was the best part about your day?
#2: What work is most exciting you this week?
#3: What new ideas are giving you energy lately?
#4: Tell me one thing you’ve learned recently that inspired you.
#5: What is one thing we could do right now to make this (day, project, event) even better?
As parents, we find Question 1 yields significantly more information than the grunts our children offered in response to, “How are you?” The way we’ve framed it here, it’s most useful for an end-of-day greeting. But you can reframe it to, “What are you most looking forward to about your day?” to spark some positive energy in the morning.
In the workplace, asking Question 2 can yield invaluable information about the work activities that give your team members energy. Listen closely and the question can help you identify your colleague’s strengths and passions; align those two things with your work, and you can expect an increase in productivity and engagement. Beyond that, this question, often reveals the small ideas and accomplishments that might not make it into a bi-weekly check-in, but that are worth celebrating.
Though similar to question 2, Question 3 differs in that it targets opportunities for innovation. As a leader, you can welcome the half-baked ideas and emerging thoughts that are beginning to tickle your team members’ minds. Find ways to build in the areas of these new ideas, and you’ll find a short cut to the traditional research and development process.
Bob Quinn, of University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, says that the most rewarding leadership development often occurs through two channels: through crisis situations (which most of us would prefer to avoid) or through self-reflection. Question 4 invites a mini-moment of self-reflection as you seek out a recent source of inspiration. Additionally, this question can help extend learning throughout your team as members share the insights that inspire them.
Finally, Question 5 can help you make a quick environmental scan for small, incremental changes that could make a big impact over time. While the question, “What could make this day better?” will occasionally earn responses such as, “Donuts!,” it will also earn responses that can point toward small changes that are quick wins.
There are endless ways to makeover the tired question, “How are you?” We welcome your suggestions (share them on Twitter at @ValuesDriven). Most importantly, whatever questions you choose, make sure they invite sincere engagement and probe for positive energy. We look forward to hearing your suggestions.
Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson work at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, at Benedictine University, where they study and consult with performance-focused, values-driven companies to understand their pain points and help them thrive. They know creating a strong, values-driven culture is complex work. Their insights come from hard-earned experience: Jim Ludema, Ph.D., is the Center’s director, a professor of global leadership, and a consultant to companies around the world. Amber Johnson is the Center’s chief communications officer and specialist in helping companies connect their mission and values to their brand and strategy. Learn more about their work at the Center for Values Driven Leadership: http://cvdl.ben.edu.