Mean it when you ask RUOK?
Today is RUOK day. If you don’t know what this means then say the letters out loud. It is a simple question not asked often enough. The fact that there is a day dedicated to this reminder says a lot. Our society is in such a state that we forget to ask the simplest of questions “Are you ok?” and mean it. Of course the key message is to not just ask this question on one day but all throughout the year whenever you feel it seems appropriate.
For me it is more about being sincere and authentic when you ask how someone is doing. It is such a common greeting that we often don’t listen for the response. How often do you meet someone and ask without really thinking about the person’s day. It is likely that you share the words as part of a conversation but not the feeling inside of really wanting to know. We have someone where to go, thoughts on our mind, our our own worries and concerns or the task at hand as distraction.
When we ask someone how he/she is doing many secretly don’t want to know. Many of us don’t want to go into a conversation that isn’t upbeat, superficial and trivial. Many of us are too afraid to hold a real conversation and truly listen to another person.
This is not a feeling to be embarrassed about. No. It is a product and reflection of our disconnected society. We are less and less likely to receive training or support in communication skills. We are less likely to encounter effective role models to learn how. We are more likely to know how to write an email, send a text or post an update in our choice of social media. We also encounter examples of people who don’t open up, stay closed down. Ultimately in our society of increasingly shorter and shorter sound bites, having a conversation doesn’t fit in.
The challenge then is to make the time and really care. This can occur when we sit face to face or next to a fellow human being or actually plan to catch up. There are degrees of comfort in asking someone how they are doing. As it is often harder for the person sharing to speak up, it is a gift of ours to start the conversation and ask. Here are a few situations where you might strike up the conversation
Family member/close friend
If it is a family member or close friend then we likely know the back story. We know the circumstances surrounding the person’s life. So we know the sensitivities and areas that may need sharing. However it is also in these apparently close relationships that many people hide their true feelings. For some being unhappy may feel like a burden on those that love them and thus the feelings stay hidden and trapped inside. It is in this situation that it is even more important to create the environment and be open to allowing a person to share.
People at work become a little trickier. Many of us have an unnecessary filter of not wanting or believing it is ok to talk about anything other than work at work. There are of course the social butterflies by the 'water cooler' or on the coffee break with you. Yet even these conversations are more gossip oriented and less about how you are doing. For work conversations to go beyond the superficial it is important to be conscious that you want to know and that it is ok to ask. The key is staying aware of how much is enough and when to pull back. Yet if you stay with the mindset that you are being friendly in a sincere way you then are in the right direction.
So here’s the ultimate one. We are raised with the expression “Don’t talk to strangers”. So what happens? Everyone walks around being strangers. We never get to know people. Of course there are people that you might encounter in your life who do not mean well. In this case you will know. But other than that it is usually our fear or apprehension that gets in the way of saying hi to a ‘stranger’. Sometimes just having a conversation to connect is all that you need to do. To acknowledge that you see and are with the other person helps the other feel connected. You might not progress to a conversation about how they are doing but you can certainly smile and talk.
There are stories of people who changed their life because a person stopped to do this. I know I do this a bit much. What I notice though is that I am naturally curious and interested in the story of the other person. People who go to restaurants or shops with me know that they need to come get me or otherwise I will be learning the life story of the person working in the restaurant or shop. So maybe not to the degree I go, but try saying hi. Strangers are just people we don’t know yet. After that they are no longer strange.
There are lots of suggestions out there for how to ask a person if they are ok. For the best collection of resources and inspiration please visit the RUOK day site (I am not affiliated with this group but support the initiative.)
I will though add a few of my own here. These are not official ones from RUOK day folks but they are ones that work for me.
- Be present in yourself first. By this I mean breathe and relax so that you can be aware of your own emotions. Sometimes what we pick up from another is actually our own issue. So it helps to first check in and make sure what we are seeing is not really our stuff.
- Focus your attention on the other person. This seems like a given but after many years of working with communication skills I notice how easy it is for people to stay in their own world even in a two way conversation. You will know if you are not focused on the other because you think of what you want to say, worry about how you are feeling, distract your thoughts, lose attention. Instead clear your mind of your own thoughts and truly listen to the other person.
- Listen with more than your ears. Listening is not about just hearing. Listening is about taking in all that you can with as many senses as possible. When you truly listen to another you notice their body language, you sense the emotions, you hear the tone and depth of voice beyond the words. True listening is like being researcher observing.
- Trust your knowing. The other sense not often talked about is your intuition. Working with intuition I also often hear people say things like “I had a feeling that was what was happening”. Or “I just felt like something was not right so I gave her a call.” It’s this extra signal that can come up in us which I believe needs to be followed through on. Again if you have done the other bits – especially checking whether it’s your stuff or not – what’s wrong with a little call or note to someone to check in. Or even a friendly hello.
- Let go of your fear. It never hurts to ask. It does hurt though to not ask and then learn later that you wished you had. This does not mean you walk around all the time asking everyone if they are ok. What it does mean is that you tune in more to other people as you are connecting with a genuine curiosity and interest in their wellbeing.
- Show unconditional love without judgement. When you ask someone how he/she is doing, the most important thing to do other than hear them is to not judge. We all go through ups and downs in life. You are not different than this person. Your presence though is a bright light in their life, a person who truly cares. So when you listen, listen with acceptance and understanding.
- Hold back on the suggestions. Many of us feel uncomfortable just listening to a person and really hearing them. We jump into either our own story too quickly or trying to problem solve. To truly listen means to be in that person’s world. Of course sharing a story to empathise can be of value. But check if the person wants to know.
- Ask what they want or need, don’t assume.Again it is not your responsibility to fix, mend or take over. However your assistance can be of great value when taken up. It is therefore helpful to offer and let the person come to you. This empowers the person to take charge of their situation.
- In case of overwhelm seek out support. Many of the comments above that I speak about are helpful for people maybe having a bad day or week. When a person is really down and truly needs assistance then you are a link to help. See yourself as the messenger or communicator of assistance. Be informed of what to do in such a situation and what resources are available – eg website, phone numbers, a good counsellor. Offer to help the person to connect to someone that is trained to help in such situations.
- Remember we are in this together as a community.The people you know are your community, whether they live next door, are online or in another town. You are a hub in the centre of your world. Doing your part helps the people in your network. You may just help another who then helps people you don’t know. Whatever the situation remember it’s not just you here to help but a whole community.
Now if you read this and you say but wait a minute I want someone to ask me how I am not the other way around then think of a few things. Firstly remember you have a voice and trust that when you speak out there are people who will listen. Seek out support rather than pretend nothing is wrong. Know that your action will set you in motion.
So today and every day you have the opportunity to really connect with others in your network. Do so with sincerity and authenticity and the reward will be many fold.