‘How are you?’ can be more than just a conversation starter

Aprajita Jha

Aprajita Jha

‘How are you?’ can be more than just a conversation starter

In the culture that we belong to, in the society that we live in, expressing unpleasant emotions accurately often comes with high stakes

In a virtual meeting, I was once a part of, the facilitator asked, “How are you feeling?” After a few participants responded, it was my turn to answer. As honest as I could have been, I admitted that I was a little stressed because I had had a morning full of hustle. But, before I could fully express my thoughts, he cut me short and cross-questioned, “Why are you giving space to stress and negativity in your life? We all go through highs and lows. It doesn’t mean we should let them affect us. As far as I’m concerned, I never take stress because there’s no point.”

I could sense that the facilitator came from a place of good intentions when he said all that. However, the interaction made me think of all the times I faced the pressure to remain positive despite feeling otherwise. Back in school, when I was crying over a bad experience, a friend asked me to stop because if anybody saw they would make fun of me. When I was going through a difficult period in my life back in 2015, a mentor figure asked me to stop fussing over my failed dreams and jump forth to face the life I had in front of me. Two years ago, when I was grieving a friend’s death, I was asked not to mourn a lot because death is inevitable.

In retrospect, I don’t doubt the competence of those who tried consoling me, nor do I have questions about their intentions. I’m thankful that they gave me a sense of hope when I needed it the most. But I’ve also come to realize that in the culture that we belong to, in the society that we live in, expressing unpleasant emotions accurately often comes with high stakes. I have experienced this, and I think you might have too.

I think there are a few reasons why this happens. First, we sometimes ask not to hear but to answer. We can perhaps already think of instances when we’ve done this. We, humans, are generally not great listeners. As a natural consequence, we fail to understand and empathize with others. It’s compassionate of us to want someone to experience the pleasant spectrum of emotions. Does it mean we would not be willing to hear their unpleasant experiences, thoughts, and feelings if and when the people in our life share them?

Second, we feel it’s our responsibility to advise people when they share their thoughts or feelings with us. We’re bad at taming our advice monster, and it often fuels our expert view on the lives of others. I’ve succumbed to this thought process many times, only to realize how forceful and unreceptive I was. In the conversations that I have had with people in recent years, I’ve seen how asking meaningful questions has helped me understand people better and connect with them. I believe curiosity creates more possibilities than unsolicited comments. So, if someone tells us they’re experiencing negative thoughts or emotions, we can try asking them, “Why are you feeling so? What do you need? and What would comfort you in this situation?”

There’s a chance that asking such questions might help the concerned person reflect upon their situation. They might even further share their reflections with us. However, considering factors like the closeness of the relationship, the context of the conversation, and the nature of the person involved, they may not want to share their thoughts with us. What we can best do in such situations is acknowledge their initial expression and give them space. If we’re close to them, we can (with intentions to help) assure them that we’ll be around if they need us.

Discussing unpleasant emotions shouldn’t be such a taboo. In fact, not doing so can often compel us to act unintentionally, create conflicts in relationships, and make us feel anxious, perpetually resentful, and in worst cases, depressed. One might argue that discussing unpleasant thoughts and emotions won’t make them go away. It sure won’t, but it can give us insights into our interpretation of negative experiences. It can help us create an environment where we can discuss emotions as valuable data and not just natural occurrences of our being.

Coming back to the virtual meeting that I was talking about earlier, I was a little put off by the generic suggestions the facilitator gave me. A few seconds later, I wondered how many people make an earnest effort to ask someone how they are feeling. When I realized this, I could handle my disappointment. I thanked him for his keenness and told him I had just shared my thoughts as honestly as I could. He responded with a smile.

The author is the linchpin at My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. You can learn more at

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