It’s mindless, isn’t it? People say, “How are you?” and we say “Fine” without even thinking. It’s as if we’re each just saying, “Hi.”  Although I do love one elderly sister’s response, which is to smile and say, “Fine, unless you want the details.”

When we meet people, when we minister, even when we talk with our closest loved ones, few of us know how to penetrate the veneer and really learn what the other person is feeling.

In a recent interfaith meeting, a woman shared a different way to inquire by simply asking, “How do you come?”  Immediately this got each of us thinking more deeply, and sharing more openly.  Sadness, frustration, hurt, fear, joy—we all bring emotions to our encounters. And by labeling our feelings, by being vulnerable, we then allow others to support us. Bonds of caring grow and strengthen. We also feel more useful to others as we rally to support their struggles.

Especially when we minister, we need to address what’s in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts. But we can’t do that if they haven’t opened up and shared. And that’s where we need the tools to elicit meaningful answers.

First, we need to earn the person’s trust. We need to express genuine caring and truly listen. When people know our interest is sincere, we can ask the kinds of questions that lead to a loving relationship.

We can also share a bit about ourselves. That idea might strike fear in folks who don’t like opening up. But I’m not suggesting we lay bare our hearts at first meeting, or that we share our deepest sorrows or worst sins. There’s a whole world of feelings that can be shared between being a completely closed book and a firehose of information. We all have experiences and thoughts that pose no risk to share, yet can form common ground with others.    

However, we need to guard against making the conversation about us. It should be about them. Their answers should spark further questions that lead to understanding. Jumping in with our own matching experiences isn’t always helpful. To truly listen we need to join them where they are, go to that place, and just stay there with them as we strive to honestly know them.

Next, we need questions that can lead to a discussion, questions that don’t have one-word answers. Here are 25 alternatives to “How are you?”:

What’s the best thing that’s happened today/this week?
What always makes you smile?
Where would you be right now, if you could go anywhere?
Do you ever feel discouraged? What do you do that helps?
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
What advice would you give your 10-year-old self?
What are your strongest talents?
What are three words that describe you?
What’s your favorite book, movie, or TV show?
What’s the most pressing need in your life right now?
How did you gain your testimony?
What kinds of music do you like?
Tell me all about your children.
What was your first job, and how did you finally choose a career?
Have you ever had a fear that you’ve overcome? How did you do it?
What sports do you like?
What’s a wonderful compliment you got as a child?
What were your family traditions as you grew up?
What’s something on your bucket list that you’d love to do, but haven’t yet?
What hobbies do you enjoy?
Do you have a favorite food or meal?
What teacher had the most impact on you?
Do you have a favorite travel destination?
Who do you ask for advice from?
What can I do that would help you right now?

Obviously some of these questions work best when we’ve established a rapport, and the beginnings of real friendship. And, while these examples are all positive, that doesn’t mean we can’t address the negative things that happen in our lives. People need to vent, to share concerns, to grieve, to ask hard questions. If someone is going through a terrible ordeal and is willing to talk about it, we need to be there for them, and not twist the conversation into a pre-designed “fun” topic.

When we put forth the energy to truly get to know others, we find we can laugh and cry together, “mourn with those who mourn” and share joys and triumphs as well. We truly can have hearts knit together and minister as Jesus wants us to. We are all so much more than “just fine.”

Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Inter-Faith Specialist for Church Communications.