How to Create a Positive Work Environment Without Asking, “How Are You?”
Whether I’m working with students or adults, my reflexive question has always been some variation on “How are you?,” which at this moment is a loaded question and one I try my best to avoid. I still want to greet people at the start of a conversation, so I came up with alternatives that also create a positive work environment.
As I was writing down alternate greetings, a had a small epiphany. I realized that whenever that question has been posed to me, I have rarely answered authentically or completely. And that’s because “How are you?” is usually code for “Are you OK to talk about/get started on/think about [insert topic or purpose for meeting]?”
Therefore, the most helpful thing we can do for a 1:1 or small group is paraphrase the coded language and explicitly say, “I hope all is well with you. Is now still a good time to meet?” I express the first part so that people in my meeting can hear my concern and then give an option to meet later, which doesn’t pry into their background but gives them a choice about their level of engagement.
For larger meetings or meetings with students, where rescheduling may not be an option, my purpose shifts to providing them a space to focus on and explore specific work. In order to create a positive work environment for those meetings and classes, I’ve begun asking direct, bite-sized questions to give people space to focus on the positive or to reflect:
- Any highlights from the past day?
- Did the pets/kids do anything funny?
- Have you been making or growing anything?
- What have you been reading/listening to/watching?
These questions allow for people of any age to share what they’re comfortable sharing and to break the ice before getting into the content of a particular meeting. It also models for students some questions that they can ask others during this time.
The next time you hear yourself ask or feel tempted to ask, “How are you?,” pause, reflect on whether you can hear a longer answer, and if not, use one of the suggestions above.
Senior Professional Learning Consultant
Danielle Martin is an educational consultant for the Great Books Foundation. She has more than 15 years of experience as a teacher, curriculum developer, and instructional coach. She holds an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an MA in theater history and criticism from Catholic University.