Some questions we answer without thinking. Like when you walk in a store and are immediately greeted with, "Can I help you?"
You're just getting your bearings, so you instinctively say, "Thanks. I'm just looking."
The same is true for, "How are you?" Think about how many times you've been out for a walk, made eye contact, and offered, "Fine, how about you?" in exchange for, "How's it going?"
We never say how it's actually going. Nor listen to how the other person says it's going.
That's even true now when for many things are definitely not going "fine."
Ask an employee, customer, colleague, etc., "How are you doing?" at the beginning of a call or chat and they'll default to some version of "fine." We're conditioned not to complain. We're aware that others have it worse.
Honest, in-depth, thoughtful answer? Not going to happen.
Which only makes the isolation problem worse.
Research shows people prefer "multiplex ties": relationships with more than one context for connection.
Say you and I both have kids, enjoy fitness, and love Lee Child's Jack Reacher books. Having multiple points of connection, however superficial, means we're more likely to see each other as more than just acquaintances.
And if the multiplex ties are more meaningful -- if both of us have had a kid who overcame a serious injury, or we've both overcome financial hardships, or we both bootstrapped our way to a degree of success -- then those points of connection make it even more likely that we will build a better and more lasting relationship.
Finding those points of connection isn't easy, though, especially if you ask a rote question like, "How are you doing?" Making people feel listened to, cared about, and valued is almost impossible when the questions you ask imply a common answer.
So let's fix that. Instead of putting on your best sincere face and asking, "How are you doing (in these difficult times)?" the next time you start a call or chat, try one of these:
- "What is one thing about working from home that was easier than you thought it would be?"
- "What about your job has been hardest to pull off from home?"
- "What have you decided you'll do differently when things go back to 'normal'?"
- "What is something you're surprised you haven't missed?"
- "What new habit have you developed?"
- "What habit did you have to change?"
- "What do you know now about isolation/distancing/working from home that you wished you had known in the beginning?"
- "What do you do when you start to feel down?"
- "What part of your job that has changed do you miss the most?"
- "What is the first thing you'll do when you're finally able?"
But don't be tempted to chime in with your own answer to the question. Keep the focus on the other person and ask a follow-up question or two.
And keep the questions short. Ask why. Or when. Or who or how or what.
People love to be encouraged to go on. Asking questions rather than interjecting your own experiences says, "That's interesting. You're interesting."
And proves you not only listened but also care.
Both of which form the basis of every good relationship.