Be Someone Others Can Confide In
by Deborah Grayson Riegel
The question, “Hey, how are you?” often gets asked as a reflex. And, “I’m fine, you?” has become the standard response. We ask, we answer—and then we go about our day. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to create an environment where people can be their whole, authentic selves—including the bad, the mad, and the sad.
Why does it matter if people tell the truth about whether or not they’re really fine? Research shows that when employees feel higher levels of authenticity at work, they report greater job satisfaction, engagement, and higher levels of performance.1 This is the case for children as well as adults. In fact, when kids share their inner worlds with their caregivers and feel understood, they deepen their trust and connection.2
You may be thinking to yourself, But what if someone isn’t fine? Then what am I supposed to do? You don’t have to be a professional coach or therapist to be supportive. In our book, Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life, coauthor Sophie Riegel and I write that “being emotionally supportive can show up as listening well, demonstrating understanding, not judging . . . [and] only offering advice if and when asked.”
1. Ask More Than Once
You’re busy, I’m busy, we’re all busy. But taking the time to ask someone how they are more than once—especially if you have an inkling that they might not be doing as well as they say they are—can make a difference. It can be as simple as, “I know you said you’re fine when I asked how you were this morning, but I felt like maybe something was off, and I just wanted to ask again. How are you really doing today?” Then follow their lead for how much (or how little) they might want to share.
2. Ask Something in Addition to “How Are You?”
After someone responds with, “I’m fine,” you might press for something like, “What was good about your weekend?” or “What did you do last night?” Asking for more details signals that you’re not going to leave the conversation at a surface level. (And there’s an additional benefit: Research shows that when we ask follow-up questions, people like us better.3)
When someone responds with, “I’m fine,” you might want to say, “I’m glad to hear that. I remember you mentioned that your dad was having surgery. How is he?” or “Didn’t you say your geometry test was today? How did that go?” Then really listen to the response. The goal isn’t to pry—it’s to let someone know that you’re paying attention, and that you care enough to follow up. If someone wants to talk, they’ll let you know. And if they don’t, they’ll let you know that as well. And if you’re not sure, inquire, “Is it OK that I asked?” or “Do you want to talk about it?”
4. Notice Body Language and Inquire Gently
Every communication has three elements—verbal (words), vocal (tone of voice), and visual (body language). When someone says, “I’m fine,” pay attention to more than their words. Notice the other person’s facial expressions, body positioning, eye contact, and so on. “I’m fine” with a frown or slumped shoulders might mean something other than what the words say. Consider saying, “I know you said you’re fine, and I also see that you’re rubbing your temples. Anything else going on that you want to share?” And again, offer to listen without pushing.
5. Model Vulnerability by Sharing When You’re Not Fine
If you always answer “I’m fine”—even when you’re not—you’re missing an opportunity to be honest and open, and to lead the way for others to come clean. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be willing to tell the truth. “I must admit, I’m not having the best day,” or “I wish I could say I’m good, but I have a lot on my mind,” gives you the opportunity to see how the other person responds. If they say, “Sorry about that. So, how about that crazy meeting yesterday, huh?” you might consider that they’re not yet comfortable being open with you, or that they have other things on their mind, or that they just weren’t really listening. But don’t write them off as uncaring or aloof. You might be modeling a new skill—being vulnerable—and learning new skills takes time.
6. Create Safe Conditions for Others to Open Up
It’s one thing to ask someone to open up to you. It’s another thing to create the conditions that support openness. What can you do to reinforce that you’re a go-to person who won’t gossip? First, honor confidentiality and don’t share what anyone tells you, even in casual conversation. Second, if you’re truly concerned about someone’s well-being, address it with them directly. Third, don’t offer advice unless you’re asked for it. Even when giving advice feels helpful, it can take away others’ sense of agency and autonomy.4 Fourth, create boundaries around situations when someone’s sharing feels as if you’ve gotten in over your head. You can say something like, “I am sorry to hear that you’re dealing with that. I’d like us to find someone who can help you—or who can help me help you better.” Finally, you can create a safe condition by respecting someone’s decision not to open up to you, too. That can sound like, “I respect your privacy. I’m here if you want to talk—and I won’t pry if you don’t.” And then, honor your commitment by not prying (as much as you might really want to).
“I’m fine” can be just that—fine—or it can be an entryway into building a more open, trusting environment for people (including you) to share how they really feel, without shame or stigma.
Adapted from “Be a Colleague That Others Can Confide In,” on hbr.org, April 1, 2020 (product #H05IAK).