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Finding The Words

(October 23, 2023 Newsletter)

In a meetup last week with a group of fellow coaches, one mentioned that he’s stopped asking his clients “How are you?” as it can be stressful to answer these days. A few others agreed and gave their alternative questions for opening conversations.

The Maya of a few years ago would have interpreted this as such: “’How are you’ is the wrong question. Got it. Either don’t ask anything or choose something else.”

But in the last few years, I’ve learned that when communicating with people with whom we have a relationship, there’s no “right” or “wrong” phrasing; only effective or ineffective.

In other words, communication is about “Range, not Change.” Rather than limit our options, we can expand our vocabulary and choose our words to match the situation and audience.

Applying that philosophy to last week’s meetup, my conclusion was not to remove the question “how are you?” from my vernacular, but rather to watch people’s reactions more closely and choose alternatives; to expand my repertoire instead of contracting it. Other options include, which you might want to consider too:

  • How are you holding up?

  • How are you feeling?

  • What’s on your mind and heart?

  • What’s top of mind for you?

  • How have the last few days been for you?

Many people stress about “saying the wrong thing” and end up saying nothing. You might be among them. If you’ve been avoiding any courageous conversations because you’re not sure what to say, consider the following:

  1. Do some research – you can ask someone who’s closer to the person how they seem before going into the conversation. If you’re not of the same background, check if there are any sensitivities you should keep in mind.

  2. Practice – if you’re texting or emailing the person, type out a few versions and choose among them. If you’re opening a conversation, say the words out loud to yourself… how do they sound?

  3. Admit you don’t know exactly what to say – “I’m not sure exactly what words to use, but I’ve been thinking about you [and care about you] so I’m reaching out to check in” is a perfectly fine way to start. You might not need to ask a question at all.

  4. Do some experiments and learn from the reactions – hopefully you’re checking in with lots of people, or with the same person multiple times. In those cases, you can vary the language and observe the differences in the responses you get.

  5. Ask for feedback in real time – assuming you’re in an extended back and forth, and not just a one-time “thinking of you” text message, you may be able to ask how the person feels about being asked how they’re doing. If the person expresses that they find “how are you” too loaded of a question these days, ask what their preferred alternative is.

Note that this newsletter isn’t titled “Finding the right words,” but just “Finding the words.” The less we get hung up on “right” and “wrong,” the more we can focus on building long-term trust based on connection and growth.


The Coaching Corner

What are you doing to care for yourself?

I’m asking you but am also reminding you to ask each of your team members this question in the next 48 hours. In these stressful times, any small wins count, and taking a moment to set an intention can make a difference.



“Storytelling that drives bold change” from the upcoming edition of HBR Magazine; it covers storytelling principles for leaders focused on change management.

Also, I highly recommend videos of puppies these days.


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