Grief and Loss

Ask these 8 questions instead to get a genuine response

As survivors we are often asked questions about our loss that we might deem hurtful, or thoughtless. If we are to be honest, before our loss we may not have known the right way to respond or support someone who is dealing with grief or another difficult trauma or experience. Stephanie Nielhson shares 8 questions to ask someone when you want a real response instead of “How are you?”

1. “How are you, really?”

  • You can easily transform conversations by adding one simple word: “really.” It indicates that you want to go beyond the pleasantries.

2. “How are you doing right now?”

  • Another way to modify “How are you?” is to narrow the question’s focus to the present moment.
  • Use this when you want to connect with someone who is navigating major or prolonged challenges, such as loss, illness, unemployment, or a breakup.

3. “What’s been on your mind lately?”

  • Some people find it easier to share thoughts than to share feelings. And often, what they tell you about their thoughts will also give you insight into their feelings. 
  • As you listen, offer support and validation with phrases like “That sounds like a tough situation” or “How did that make you feel?”

4. “If you were being completely honest with me, how would you describe your feelings lately?”

  • The first part of this question is powerful. You’re giving someone explicit permission to share how they’re feeling, and doing it in a way that makes them feel safe.
  • You can change the second part of the question to ask about more specific topics, too. With a coworker, for example: “If you were being completely honest with me, how do you think this project is going so far?”
  • Or with your partner: “If you were being completely honest with me, what is one thing you’d like me to do differently in our relationship?”

5. “What’s feeling good, and what’s feeling hard?”

  • The problem with “How are you?” is that it encourages one-note answers: “I’m good,” “I’m fine,” or “I’m doing okay, thanks!”
  • But that’s not how humans experience life. We have more than one feeling at a time. We evaluate situations from different perspectives. We see what’s positive and what’s challenging at the same time.

6. “What word would you use to describe your life right now?”

  • Sometimes, distilling your experiences into a single word can spark deep insights. When you ask this question, you’re giving someone a new way to understand their what they are going through.
  • Once they share their word, use follow-up questions to learn more, like “What made you choose this word?” or “What else do you associate this word with?”

7. “The last time we talked, you were dealing with [X problem]. How has that been lately?”

  • By following up on something that a person mentioned in the past, you’re telling them: “I see you, and you matter to me.”
  • You could ask about:
  • An unexpected problem in their life
  • A transition they were navigating
  • A challenging goal they were pursuing
  • A relationship issue with a partner, family member, friend, manager or colleague.

8. “What question do you wish someone would ask you right now?”

  • The person you’re talking to might be yearning to say something, but not know how to broach the topic. When you ask them to pick their question, you’re giving them the space to talk about what’s really going on.
  • Once they’ve share the question they’d like to be asked, your only job is to repeat it back, and then give them your full attention.

Nielhson, S. (2023, April 14). Don’t say “how are you?” ask these 8 questions instead, says expert: “you’ll get a genuine response.” CNBC.

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