(press play for audio)
The question is ordinary, yet when it comes to answers, I and few others seem to expect and accept nothing short of extraordinary.
This was an excerpt of a conversation at a family get together about ten years ago…
“The kids are doing great! They’re busy with school and afternoon activities of all sorts and they’re at the top of their class.”
“Would you like me to repeat the question?” I asked.
“No, no. I mean your brother is busy with work. He just got a promotion so we don’t often see him because he’s so busy but what can you do? He’s working hard to support the family.”
“Jan,” I warmed, “What question did I ask?”
“You asked me how I was doing” she smiled.
“That’s right. Would you like to answer it?”
Jan laughed awkwardly, looked at me, smiled again and sighed. It took three times but on the third attempt she got it right. “I’m struggling. I’m happy that boys are doing well and the family is in good health, but sometimes I just feel so overwhelmed and with your brother working as much as he does sometimes I feel like I’m managing alone. I know this is temporary. I know things will be different and I know things will get easier soon but right now, I’d just like to be able to breath.”
That sounds about right. That sounds like me (minus the two sons and the workaholic spouse, of course). Substituting your variables for my sister-in-law’s, I’m guessing it probably sounds a lot like you too.
Aside from the normalcy of the final answer, what got my attention was that it took three times to get there. How often does a simple question like “How are you?” get translated into other questions that have very little to do with the first? I didn’t ask about the children. I didn’t ask about the husband and I certainly didn’t ask what they were doing. I asked about my sister-in-law and she either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer until I reminded her it was her I was asking about. I’m no different. I remember Jack, the owner of the company for which I worked, calmly repeating “What question did I ask?” after I had gone on for five minutes excitedly telling him how we, a short handed kitchen staff my first week on the job, managed to fill orders and deliver items on time.
Since then, I try to pay better attention to questions and I try to pay more attention to answers, other people’s as well as my own.
I’ve learned answers often say a lot. Sometimes they say more about where a person is coming from than the person is willing to say themselves…if I’m willing to listen. As a result, I try to listen, actively, so that I can gain a fuller picture of the person’s life, their attitude and their outlook. I’d like to think I’m a better listener now than I’ve been in the past and I’d like to hope I don’t ignore important cues like the tone of their voice or the look in their eye. For me, listening takes practice and it’s a skill I’m trying to improve.
A few weeks ago, I touched base with a family member, a matriarch of my family, so to speak. We had talked once before, shortly after I arrived back in the States from my two years abroad, but that was months ago and now she wanted an update. She wanted to know how I was doing since I got home.
“Oh, aunty! I’m doing great! Thank you so much for asking! It’s won…”
“Oh, you got a jo…?!” she interrupted.
I continued obliviously “…derful to be back home! I’m relishing my time in the States and I’m soaking it up! And you know what? These past two months, life had been ridiculously good! This is the happiest I’ve been in a long, long time (I had not yet begun my rather unpleasant and painful inventory I’ve written about recently. See Naked for details). I hope whatever this change is, it doesn’t end!”
“That’s great” she said sounding unimpressed, “but how are you?”
My mind raced back to that day over lunch and the conversation I had with my sister-in-law.
“Aunty, I just told you…”
“Well, you did but…”
I imagined myself in my sister in law’s shoes, scurrying to answer the question I asked as best I could.
I tried again.
“Oh, I’m sorry….I’m doing great!”
“So…” I could hear her voice raise with hope “you found a job?!”
I quickly took a mental inventory: “Wait, did I misunderstand? The question was ‘How are you?’ wasn’t it? It was” I thought to myself.
“Huh? A job?”
“Yes, a job! You found one?” she asked excitedly.
“Umm…no.” I responded quizzically. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
It’s then that something occurred to me. Try as I might to listen to a question and answer it as best I can, there’s no guarantee the person who asked the question is listening any better or with less of an agenda than I am.
Somehow, someway, “How are you doing” has been replaced by “What are you doing?” As if what I’m doing at work or what I’ve accomplished at the office are more important than how I’m doing on the inside. I’m guilty of this as well. I’ve asked, many times, “How are you doing?” when what I really want to know is “what is your activity level?” It saddens me, but I don’t think I’m alone. I think this is dangerous and only recently was I able to identify why. I imagine people are asked “How are you doing?” every day. I imagine people try to answer. I imagine people like Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams were asked this question the last week of their lives and I imagine they tried to answer. Now I try to imagine how many people bothered to listen.
In the midst of their “fines”, as I’m sure this was their response, I’m willing to wager there was an indication of something having gone awry. Often times, I’ll hear people say “fine” when their eyes or voice say anything but. This is where I have a choice, to repeat, to listen or to ignore my gut.
The next time I suspect someone’s sun has started to set through the windows of their soul or hear their songbird has gone silent through a crack in their voice I hope to not doubt the possibility that their dawn may be turning into dusk, to greet them with a smile, repeat “How are you?” and then listen rather than ignore.