Asking ‘How Are You?’ is Meaningless: Tips for Truly Connecting at Work

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Managing Partner & VP of Consulting SolutionsEmployee Engagement, LeadershipLeave a Comment

At Newmeasures, we spend a lot of time thinking about how organizations listen. We advise organizations about which questions they should be asking employees, with what frequency, and what to do with the feedback. And while organizations can certainly become more strategic and sophisticated in their approach to listening, at the heart of it all, what is all boils down to is how we hear each other—one relationship, one conversation at a time.

Am I Seen and Heard?

Listening has been a theme in my personal life as of late as well. In a variety of contexts, the lesson that “we all have a need to be seen and heard” has been showing up in many ways. I have noticed the power of being able to calm down my six-year-old by simply listening and letting him know I see and hear him. I might say, “You feel sad and left out because your brother and sister didn’t let you play in their game,” and it will instantly diffuse tears and shift the mood. Why? There is power in witnessing the experience of others and acknowledging its importance. It’s to say, “I see you and it matters.”

I’ve noticed this in my training as an energy healer as well. It is not uncommon for my clients to experience pain or tightness in an area of their body because there is old or stale energy. More times than not, simply saying something along the lines of, “You have some energy stuck in your hips that doesn’t seem to be serving you. You don’t need that anymore; it can move on,” can be the first step in helping the body let go. After acknowledging the “stuckness”, my clients often feel an immediate shift of movement and release of tension. It’s as if the act of noticing and honoring allows negative energy to move on and make room for the healing process. I continue to be amazed at the simplicity and power of this practice.

Moving Beyond “How Are You?”

So how do we do better to truly see and hear each other at work? Susan Scott, in her book, Fierce Conversations, talks about the need to for us to listen deeply. To hear not just words but also the intention or motivation behind what has been said. As one example, she talks about how asking the question, “how are you?” fails at helping us to really know each other. In American culture in particular, we have been programed to respond with an answer of “good” or “fine.” In fact, the website eDiplomat, which prescribes cultural etiquette to improve diplomatic interactions around the globe, advises the following for how to best interact with Americans:

The only proper answers to the greetings “How do you do?” “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” are “Fine,” “Great,” or “Very well, thank you.” This is not a request for information about your well-being; it is simply a pleasantry.

In other words, we ask people how they are, but we don’t really want to know and therefore we don’t attempt to share. This practice is in no way helping us to feel seen or heard. When it comes to relationship building at work, especially with our teammates, direct reports, superiors and customers, we can do better!

Asking “Sensitive” Questions Can Help

An interesting study by Hart, VanEpps, and Schweitzer (2019), suggests that one way we can do better at really seeing each other is to consider our tendency to avoid asking one another sensitive questions. The authors describe sensitive questions as those that may be regarded as intrusive or uncomfortable. While questions like “when is your baby due?” or “how much do you pay for rent?” may be faux pas, the research suggests that asking the right provoking questions can lead to deeper relationships. We tend to overestimate the possibility of offending others by asking personal questions. As a result, we miss out on potentially useful information and the possibility of a richer connection.

This is not to suggest that we throw out all manners when it comes to asking questions of our colleagues at work. But what I do take from this research is that sometimes we are too careful. We have conversations that skirt around the real issues, so we fail to really understand and hear each other. We are comfortable staying at the “how are you?” level, but miss the opportunity for true understanding, empathy, and connection.

Talk Less, Listen More

In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott provides endless examples to help us listen better to one another. Her overarching advice is that we should talk less and listen more. We should be asking follow-up questions to get to the core of an issue. Simple follow-up questions like, “what else?” and “can you say more?” help the conversation move to deeper realms. For this to work, however, also requires creating a safe space for people to share what’s really on their minds. Repeating back what you heard to check for understanding, holding back a reaction and rather following up with another question to build understanding, and being careful of defensiveness can lead to a conversation built on trust.

Here are a few of my favorite follow-up questions Susan Scott recommends that I find especially useful for one-on-ones with your boss or direct reports:  

  • What do you wish you had more time to do?
  • What things are you doing that you would like to stop doing?
  • If you were hired to consult with our company, what would you advise?
  • What are you feeling?
  • If X, Y, Z doesn’t change, what is likely to happen?

Most of us think we are good listeners, but we can all do better. We can all take the extra minute to look each other in the eye and seek to listen and understand. We can ask one more question before sharing what we have to say.  We build connection by acknowledging that each of our experiences is important. We can start now, one conversation at a time.

What good questions do you use to make sure you are truly “hearing” others?


Hart, Einav and VanEpps, Eric and Schweitzer, Maurice E., I Didn’t Want to Offend You: The Cost of Avoiding Sensitive Questions (June 24, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3437468 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3437468

Huang, K., Yeomans, M., Brooks, A. W., Minson, J. A., & Gino, F. (2017). It doesn’t hurt to ask: Question-asking increases liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 430-452.