I’ve often wondered the true meaning of the words “how are you”? When someone says, “how are you”, do they really care how you are or are they just being polite?
For example, I received an email from an acquaintance that started with “how are you”, then went right into her request. I don’t think she really cares how I am.
As a contrast, I ran into someone in the supermarket who asked me how I was. Then she followed up with questions about work, summer plans, and made me promise to give regards to my family. I think she actually cares about how I am.
The phrase “how are you” was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it was used to mean ‘something very small and insignificant’. According to Psychology Today, whether or not you are actually interested in someone depends on a number of factors:
- How well do you know this person?
- Does the individual seem ill or have a history of being ill?
- Are you aware that something has been troubling this person?
As an example, every day I grab a cup of coffee at a local shop. Over the past year, I noticed the normally chatty checkout woman seemed unhappy. Her typical contagious smile was replaced with a silent frown. I didn’t know her well enough to ask if something was wrong.
Fast forward about a year, her personality changed back again. She also looked different; lighter, happier and was sporting a new hair style. So, I said “you look great, I love your hair. How have you been?” I was truly interested.
That’s when she told me she had been ill but was doing much better now. The hair wasn’t hers, but she was glad I liked it.
Many people are private. Some don’t want to burden you with their problems. Others don’t follow up with questions to indicate that they are truly interested in what you’re saying.
I wondered how this translates to our work lives and two very different situations came to mind.
Situation One: We were providing leadership communications coaching at an automotive company where the sales director felt disrespected. He said he was tired of playing therapist and didn’t want employees coming to him with their personal problems. Sales were down and he blamed his subordinates. During role-playing which was videotaped, he was gruff, failed to make eye contact and was often multi-tasking instead of listening. When he spoke, he barked orders and rarely asked questions. He didn’t appear to value the opinions of others and told me, he was the boss so they should do what he says and not question his authority. Wow.
What was apparent to me, but not to him, is that his employees didn’t like him. More importantly, they didn’t trust him. Trust and communication are centerpieces of all relationships whether professional or personal. If employees don’t trust leadership, it affects productivity and morale. When communication is one-sided, employees are less engaged which typically leads to poor performance and job dissatisfaction.
Situation Two: I work with a global CEO I greatly admire. He’s a people person. He says all business is personal and the more interest he takes in his employees, the more committed and productive they are. Even though he can’t personally interact with 600 employees, he tries to meet with as many as possible. He said their opinions drive innovation and change. He makes it a point to have lunch in the employee cafeterias when visiting different job sites and invites employees to join him. His company boasts very low employee turnover.
Back to the sales director. After the role-playing, I played back the tape. At first, he was defensive. Defensiveness turned into embarrassment. He said he knew he cut people off, but never realized how negative he looked and sounded. He asked how he could improve. These are the tips I shared with him.
Tip #1: Be empathetic. It’s important to recognize that employees have personal lives and personal problems can spill over to the workplace. If it’s serious like a health condition, divorce or death of a loved one, cut them some slack and choose your words carefully. Ask them if they help, a temporary schedule adjustment or time off.
Tip #2: Listen to understand. If someone disagrees with you, instead of shutting them down, ask questions to better understand their perspective. Perhaps they were passed over for a promotion or they’re upset over the way a project is being managed. You don’t have to change your decision but listening signals respect. You may also gain insight that could be helpful moving forward.
Tip #3: Be present. While your responsibilities may prevent you from being present in person, the more visible you are, the more connected people will feel to you. Technology such as video conferencing has made interacting remotely easier than ever. Look for ways to engage your employees face-to-face.
So, the next time you’re about ask someone “how are you”, think about what those words really mean. If you genuinely care, then be fully present and listen to their response. If it’s simply a nicety or expression, perhaps a simple hello will do.
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