So you asked “R U OK?”, and they said, “I’m fine”. What now?
We all put on a brave face sometimes. We answer the way we think people want to hear, we protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable by dancing around the truth that - no we aren’t okay. Or maybe we are okay, but we’re just okay and could be better. Maybe we’re doing awesome, but we don’t want to be seen as a tall poppy.
Whatever our reasons for responding this way, it’s a script we stick to for emotional safety. If you’re wanting the real answer from someone, there are a few ways you can get the conversation going that create space for vulnerability.
How to ask R U OK?
Depending on the setting, you might want to change the way you ask this question. For instance, you’re likely to get an honest answer asking this of a friend or family member, but what about your colleagues? How about your boss? Are you in a group or speaking one-on-one?
Because R U OK? a closed question that encourages short “yes” or “no” answers you’re unlikely to get the full picture from their response, especially if in a crowd. Try these open-ended questions below as either a conversation starter or a follow up, and think about creating a safe space where these questions would be welcomed.
- How are things going with you?
- How are you finding things at the moment?
- How are you feeling about work this week?
- What’s been on your mind lately?
- Who else have you spoken to about this?
- What can I do to help you?
Alternatively, if you’re reaching out because you have noticed a change in someone’s behaviour, that can be a great opportunity to connect too. You might want to ask, “You haven't seemed like yourself lately, how are things going?" or "Things have been a bit rough/tough lately, how are you coping?".
Validation comes more naturally to us when we are keen to share in a positive moment in someone’s life. If there is something to celebrate, it’s easy to jump in with, “That’s great news” or “I’m so happy for you!”.
If you’ve already tried our Deep Listening activity, you’ll notice the questions suggested promote positive answers, so nodding and smiling as you listen would have felt pretty natural. But what about when someone’s telling you something that’s harder to hear?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping straight to providing solutions, but if the person you’re speaking to isn't prepared for this they could interpret your quick thinking as emotionally invalidating. Before launching into solution mode, first acknowledge how they are feeling by saying something like “this sounds like it has been difficult for you” or “I see what you mean, how you’re feeling makes sense given the circumstances”. Note these responses don’t necessarily mean you agree or would react the same way as them - you don’t have to agree with someone to provide validation.
Once they know they are being heard and understood, allow them to dictate your next response by simply asking something like, “What do you need right now?”. They might say they have it handled, or they might ask for advice. Either way, you’ve listened to and accounted for their needs in the present moment.
Leading by example
If you’re not getting much back when you’re asking these questions, that’s okay. Some people just won’t be comfortable opening up in this way. You can help them feel like it’s safe to do so by opening up yourself. If they ask how you are, be honest. Especially if you are a leader of a team or an organisation, a great way to get a group of people to engage in a culture of openness and mental wellness is to be open about your own journey to wellbeing.
You might start your first meeting on R U OK? Day by asking yourself the question out loud and in front of your team, and answering honestly. Or you could ask everyone in the meeting to share something they have found difficult and something that inspired them in the last week, but make sure to start the activity off with an honest answer yourself. Leading by example is something you can do all year round to create a workplace culture that welcomes honesty, provides psychological safety and encourages people to come forward and seek assistance if they are struggling with their mental health.
Above all, R U OK? Day is a reminder for us to really connect with others and be mindful that we all struggle at different times and in different ways, we could all use support and can help to support others.
If you are looking to take the conversation about wellbeing at work beyond R U OK? Day, we're here to help!
Click below to get learn how businesses can support the mental health and wellbeing of employees with the Smiling Mind Workplace Program.