Asking “How are you?”

In one of my blogs at the end of last year I talked about The Benefits of Helping. In that blog I reported some of the evidence about the good that can come from helping others and the good that comes back to you as a result of being the ‘helper’.

Often we get a sense that something is disturbing someone we know, but we need a little more information in order to best help them and that means asking questions. Some of my research into tertiary student helping behaviours showed that for many of us it can be a little daunting to start off the conversations in order to see what is going on with someone. So it might be worthwhile to explore some of these ‘starter’ questions. You could start with some very simple questions like:

  • Are you feeling OK?
  • Are you OK?
  • Is everything going OK for you?
  • Are you happy with the [course/ relationship / share house etc]?

However, these are closed questions (that is they can be answered with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’).

It is even better to try and ask open questions (questions that require more than one word to respond) although these are harder to construct.

Here are some examples of open questions:

  • What’s going on for you at the moment?
  • How is the [course / relationship / share house etc] going for you?
  • You are not coming out anymore? How are things going?
  • I haven’t seen you around much lately. How are things?
  • What’s happening with your course at the moment?
  • How do you feel about your new share house?
  • What do you think about the course?
  • How are you and [insert name of partner, family member, friend etc] going?
  • How are you going with studies and having [migraines / an ill mum / a full-time job etc]?
  • Can we catch up sometime for a coffee? When would be good for you?
  • How does your illness affect you at uni/Tafe/college?
  • What’s it been like for you coping with the loss of your [mum, dad, brother, friend etc]?
  • Where are things at for you in relation to [uni, work, home, relationship etc]?
  • You seem quite tired, how are you sleeping?

If you look at these questions a little more carefully you see the key ‘question’ words are HOW, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN.

How you phrase a question can really change how your friend will receive it. Questions that use How, What, When and Where, can make your friend provide you with more detail, they can’t easily just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these questions. Questions built using these words sound like you are interested in hearing the response.

‘Why‘ questions – questions that use ‘Why’ are a special case as they can sound a little accusatory at times. ‘Why’ questions are not easy to answer as it puts your friend in a position of having to justify something, or a stance, which they may not be able to do. Often you will get a ‘don’t know’ response.

  • Why are you so miserable all the time?

This sounds like your friend’s misery is an annoyance to you. Also, if your friend is depressed, for example, and maybe still coming to terms with that feeling then it might be very difficult for them to know why they are feeling that way. They may not even be able to identify the emotion they feel. They may not know why they feel the way they do or they may not be able to label the way they feel. Or worse still, they may think they are really worthless or screwed up because they have been told they are miserable. Being labelled is very confronting.

Instead you could ask something like

  • You don’t seem your usual self, how are things?


Want to learn more about the skill of asking questions?

Taken from Mend-A-Friend

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