Should you stop asking, “How are you?”

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Should you stop asking “How are you?”
(And what to ask instead.)

By David Leibl


A recent missive from the CEO of global consulting firm Korn Ferry derided “How are you?” as the “three most useless words in the world of communication.”

The post went viral.

But is the thesis actually true? Is asking a colleague, client or employee how they’re doing (a practice most of us would admit to engaging in, perhaps daily) truly useless?

Small talk has value, of course, and that value is well established. When we inquire “How are you?” we signal approachability, empathy and warmth, which has tangible benefit both in business and in our personal relationships.

Even anecdotally, we know small talk has merit. We don’t talk about the weather to glean meteorological information; it’s understood by both parties that the underlying intent is to build rapport and convey interest in the other person.

Small talk can even make us happy. University of British Columbia researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that small talk even with total strangers can boost levels of happiness.

The limits of small talk

It’s true that “How are you?” has limited utility, especially in a business setting. In my work this is most often manifest in the small confines of a meeting room before the meeting has started, or in the awkward minutes prior to a conference call when all participants are not yet on the line.

In both scenarios there’s an obvious silence to be filled and asking “How are you?” is the default way to fill it.

The problem is that “How are you?” is neither an open question nor a leading question. It doesn’t help the conversation go anywhere. When the span of time needing to be filled endures more than 30 seconds, asking “How are you?” (and then replying in kind) hasn’t solved a problem.

More importantly, while “How are you?” may signal warmth, it also doesn’t leave much of an impression. Whether you’re trying to show that you’re an attentive boss, a worthy consultant or an engaged employee, the act of asking “How are you?” is eminently forgettable.

Other options

In his popular post, Korn Ferry’s CEO offers alternatives:

  • “What’s your current state of mind?”

  • “What are you looking forward to this week?”

  • “You remind me of a celebrity, but I can’t remember which one — who’s someone you relate to?”

These are arguably better (and certainly widen a conversation further) than asking “How are you?” but they’re also somewhat fraught.

I know that many of my colleagues and clients would feel a marked degree of discomfort discussing their “state of mind,” in particular if others were present.

Noting that someone looks like a celebrity, meanwhile, would be grievously unprofessional in many contexts, especially given the immediacy of many women’s struggle to be recognized on the basis of professional competence and not physical appearance.

The better option

So what to ask instead?

What’s as simple as “How are you?” but far more functional and impactful?

Go with: “What’s keeping you busy right now?”

Or if you prefer: “What’s keeping you busy these days/this month/this quarter?”

Why it’s better

Unlike “How are you?” asking “What’s keeping you busy?” actually starts a conversation. It both invites and requires more than a rote reply.

It also signals a genuine interest in the other person, and it acknowledges a fundamental truth: people like talking about themselves, especially if they’re able to shape the nature of the conversation.

Crucially, “What’s keeping you busy right now?” allows the respondent to answer the question on their terms. The response might be about their kids or family, or it might be about a work project, a departmental goal or an impending deadline.

The response may also differ depending on the nature of the relationship or who else is in the room, and that inherent versatility underscores the question’s worth.

There’s almost no context in which “What’s keeping you busy right now?” isn’t appropriate. It’s a question an executive can pose when engaging with employees, an inquiry an employee can make of their boss, or an icebreaker to quickly build rapport when meeting customers or clients for the first time.

More pragmatically, it fills time. The silence in a meeting room that follows the obligatory round of “How are you?” is a painful one. Asking “What’s keeping you busy right now?” keeps things moving. As a secondary benefit it can also create upbeat momentum to set the tone for the actual business that follows.

The takeaway

“How are you?” won’t die. It’s an entrenched social nicety, and in many contexts it’s just a glorified way of saying hello. Chances are, if you order a coffee, eat in a restaurant or buy groceries today someone will ask how you’re doing, even if they — and you — don’t actually care.

And that’s alright. Small talk is the grease of social interaction and its function is well understood.

In our business relationships, however, we can do better. We can instead aim to open a conversation in a way that creates reciprocal value.

Asking “What’s keeping you busy right now?” offers a better dividend every time.

David Leibl is principal of Guidepost Strategies.

 
David Leibl