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That awkward moment. An acquaintance is going through something wrenching like depression, or unemployment, or a messy divorce, and you want to reach out supportively. You know the need goes deeper than a casual “How are you doing?”

With siblings or close personal friends, you can sometimes insist “C’mon, how are you REALLY doing?” But that’s too personal for many situations. You want to respect your friends’ privacy and emotional boundaries. You’re not trying to imply that their nonchalant responses are somehow dishonest, or that it’s your job to be their counselor. You’re also not trying to amplify the implication that they might be weak or struggling. So how can you allow them to open up without prying?

My friend Anne is perky, funny, artistic, generous, and uplifting, despite enduring the slow degeneration of multiple sclerosis since 2001. She has probably heard the question, “How are you doing?” more than 10,000 times from kind folks around her, and here’s what she told me:

“I’m grateful that people ask me because it means they love me. I know they don’t mean it condescendingly. But there’s a downside to the question, “How are you doing?” It forces me to judge my performance, and that can be depressing. It’s almost like people are asking: How well are you handling life? Are you holding strong? Are you taking it on the chin? Or, are you doing poorly? Are you really falling apart? Sometimes I’m not doing so hot, but I want to sound like I’m coping well, so I answer cheerfully or vaguely.”

About ten years into her illness, Anne was startled when, for the first time, a friend instead asked her a different question she had never heard before.

“What’s it like to have multiple sclerosis?” 

Anne related, “I was amazed at how different this question felt to me. I was free to talk about MS in third-person perspective, without self-evaluation. Distancing myself from my trial allowed me to honestly describe how awful IT is—that disease out there that challenges a lot of people—without worrying about how well (or poorly) I was dealing with the challenge myself. I was free to be honest about tough parts of the trial—because they didn’t necessarily reflect on my own personal coping ability.”

The questions “How are you doing” or, “how are you REALLY doing?” implied that Anne might be in a needy, struggling place—that she needed compassion for her potential weakness. To answer honestly, Anne had to judge herself and her performance.

The question “What’s it like?” empowered Anne to share her hard-won expertise on a difficult subject. Because the inquiry focused on the external environment, instead of Anne’s individual coping, it felt more supportive and less judgmental. It also conveyed intellectual humility, desire to learn, and the assumption that the listening friend would benefit and be enriched by Anne’s perspective.

Consider how rephrasing these commonly asked questions makes them easier to answer:

How are you doing on the job search?
What’s it like to search for a job these days?

How are you doing in your new school?
What’s it like to be the new kid? What’s your new school like?

How did your divorce court go?
What’s divorce court like, anyway?

How are you getting along with your new family?
What’s it like to adjust to a blended family?

How are you doing? Recovering well?
What’s it like to recover from this type of surgery?

Leaders can prayerfully use this question to deepen conversations and friendships in church classrooms too. Some subjects (sins, family disputes, etc.) would be too personal for public discussion. But many topics could likely benefit the whole group. Would ward members benefit from a spotlight about certain types of challenges faced by those in their midst? Would a specific member be comfortable and grateful for the chance to publicly explain the complex nature of a specific trial? Whether for 3 minutes or 30 minutes, this kind of exchange has the potential to take ward chit-chat beyond the surface into more compassionate support networks.

–what it’s like to place a parent in hospice?

–what’s it like to parent with peanut allergies?

–what’s it like to have family in the military?

–what’s it like to go through Christmas for the first time without your spouse?

I asked my friend Anne what she would tell the whole Relief Society if asked to give a 5-minute spotlight about the challenges of MS. She told me that many ward members have seen her totally depleted with muscle weakness, so they no longer invite her to any activities that might tax her strength. They don’t know that MS often goes into remission for days, during which Anne can hoola-hoop in the parade, dive into the surf, and walk the dog as well as anybody. She wishes that, rather than politely excluding her, ward members would always continue to invite her, and then allow her to make her own decision about whether to participate.

I’m not suggesting that the phrase “what’s it like?” is a silver bullet that always cuts straight to the heart of any situation. Building trusting, open relationships still takes lots of time and love. Even then, not everyone wants to opens up for a big heart-to-heart, and that’s totally okay. Many still answer casually, or positively, or impersonally like before: “It’s great!” or “It’s no big deal!” But in some conversations, I have seen that people now feel freer to say, “It has been really, really hard…” And many times, this starts not just one meaningful exchange, but a whole series of real conversations.

I wonder: how much more sensitive and compassionate I would be if I had asked these questions carefully and consistently over the last 40 years? How many more close friendships might I have made if I had started the conversation simply,

Help me understand. What’s it like…?