I believe the checkout person at my food store must be trained to ask me certain questions, because I am trained to answer them.
Her: Hi, how are you?
Me: Fine, and you?
Her: Did you find everything you were looking for today?
Me: Yes, I did.
Even if my answers are lies – I did NOT find what I was looking for and I am NOT fine – I’m on autopilot and so is she. If I throw in a “love your earrings!”, it just makes her lose her place. She has a job to do, and I respect that. I still will compliment those earrings if they’re great, though.
With our friends, I’m afraid we have rote conversations too, even during very hard times.
Me: I’m so sorry for your loss.
Her: Thank you so much!
The go-to things we say are easier to utter than what we really want to offer, which may, in this case, go something like this:
Me: I have no idea what to say about your mother’s death and I don’t even know what “sorry for your loss” means. I sound like an idiot. I’m making myself speak at all right now. Whelp.
Her: I have cried off all my make up three times today, now you’re going to make me cry again! I need to go lay down now, but I’ll smile weakly for you so this can be over.
It’s a weird question because we all have needs, but we may not be prepared to be needy. Your friend may not know what kind of needy you’re ready to shoulder, so the way that you ask must be believable. Frankly, I think that no one asks this question who doesn’t want an actionable answer.
“What do you need?”* is slightly nuanced from these other threadbare versions, which should really be retired.
- What can I do?
- How can I help?
- Will you let me know if there’s anything I can do for you?
I know. I’m a repeat offender 🙁 but the truth is all of those questions have a well-practiced answer that our brain can pull out of the air without having to check with our heart. Let’s say your friend is suffering, and you really want to reach her heart. And not just say you tried – you want to inch closer to honest aid. It might be time to employ a fresh question.
If we keep sticking to the script, which has been the same for eons, we will keep getting the same answers. And we’ll remain frustrated and distant, both of us knowing the arrow has missed the mark.
You: What can I do?
Me: Nothing, I’m fine. (I have no idea.)
You: How can I help?
Me: It’s okay, I’m covered, but thanks. (I have no idea.)
You: Will you let me know if there’s anything I can do for you?
Me: Of course. (I’ll just add that to my list.)
Why not try asking what you want to ask in a way you’ve never asked it? The best questions among friends (and family) are the ones that are not overworked and already cliché. The reason for this is that a new question or a new way of asking forces us to stop and listen to the diligent interest that’s being offered. We don’t know what to do with that, but we must do something with it.
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