How are you? (really)


Many of us accept that there are only three possible answers to the question “How are you?” The answer is either “Good, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?” or possibly “Not bad, how are you?”. The other person then echoes your response with “Yes, good, thanks” or “Yes, fine thanks” or “Same here, not bad.”  The conversation then moves on.   

However, knowing people’s level of engagement with the task they are involved in, their ‘will’ for it is as important a leadership skill as knowing their skill level. So how do you find out how they are, really, particularly when you are leading remote teams and there are not the same opportunities to chat around the water cooler or watch the body language from a distance?


Here are three tips I have picked up from colleagues since the start of the lockdown. I would be really interested to hear your ideas in return –  so please feel free to share.

The first tip is to spend at least the first 10 minutes of any 1:1 meeting chatting about this and that: family, friends, holiday plans. Use this time to listen carefully for any clues about how the other person is. Resist the urge to get on with the task and your agenda and try to connect with their energy levels and motivation.

The second tip is to ask the ‘How are you?’ question in a  fun and emotionally safe way that gives people the opportunity to share a little bit more. One question that a colleague suggested works well at the start of a team meeting was to invite people to share the last thing you ate and how it made you feel.

The third tip is taken from people who are real experts in the art of finding out how people are – children’s workers. Last week I was chatting with a senior manager in one of Scotland’s largest children’s charities. They have had a positive experience with great engagement with their programmes since the beginning of the pandemic; excellent feedback from struggling families and an SMT that has grown and developed through the crisis. I asked the secret of their success. They talked about a few things – but of relevance to this blog was her observation that their SMT met daily (online) and spent the first part of the meeting checking in often using one of the tools in the ‘kitbag’  they use for engaging with vulnerable children to help the kids open up as to how they are feeling.


On the ACEVO programme for experienced CEOs starting later this year, we will be exploring many leadership questions including around how we effectively motivate and support people.

Before signing off I will add that there is another question that as leaders we need to ask ourselves before asking others how they are, and that question can be even trickier to answer. And that question? Well, that’s the “How am I …really”  question. However, that is a subject for another blog! 


 Sally will be jointly facilitating the Next Step Leadership programme with fellow associate Karen Kinghorn. Sally has over 25 years of leadership in global and local organisations – working in teams of hundreds and just two.

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