Is it okay to simply ask “are you okay?”

Maybe we need to distinguish between the physical okay and the emotional okay. Obviously, if your toddler takes a tumble and starts to cry, the first thing you’re going to ask is if he’s okay. (Unless you’re my niece, Lisa, whose first question would be “are you bleeding?”)  My friend, Joe, recently stepped off the curb and fell while walking in his neighborhood. When recounting the story, he told me that a neighbor asked him if he was okay, and because he was embarrassed, he immediately responded, “yes.” In fact, he wasn’t. He’d scraped his palms, his knees were bleeding, and he had a large bump on his forehead. Because he said he was okay, nobody came to his aid. It was a good thing he didn’t have a concussion. Or worse.

In Joe’s case, the situation was both physical and emotional. He was hurt and embarrassed, so his response was a natural one.

But what I’ve really been wondering about is the emotional “are you okay?” And more particularly, why is our first instinct to say that we’re fine?

When I was newly widowed, I was definitely not okay. Yet well-meaning friends and family asked me that very question on a daily basis, and I always said I was fine even though I was barely functioning. What stopped me from answering differently? Was it pride? Habit? A defense mechanism? Did I consider the question to be rhetorical?

Now that I can look back, I think that if the question was worded differently, I might have given a more honest response. If my best friend had asked, “are you sleeping?” I would have said no. If my sister had asked, “are you drinking too much?” I would have said yes. In the literal sense, I was still okay, but emotionally I was a wreck.

If your dear friend’s father was dying and you called to check in on her, how could you ask, with compassion, if she’s taking care of herself during this emotionally difficult time? I think the first step would be to ask some open-ended questions rather than closed ones. (Note: Closed questions usually require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; open-ended ones leave room for a more revealing response.)

NANCY: What are you doing about eating regularly?

JENNIE: I’m not.

NANCY: In that case, what kind of soup shall I make for you?

See where I’m going with this?

How many times and in what situations do you hear or ask, “Are you okay?” How could that well-meaning question be worded differently?

I’m always thinking about better ways to ask questions of my mediation clients. If the question is a good one, I not only hear what my clients say in response, I hear what they don’t say. Sometimes that’s even more revealing. The right questions always lead to clearer answer, and ultimately to better understanding.

Did you ever say you were okay when you really didn’t mean it?