How are you?

These three words (and their variants – how’s it going, howzit, ‘sup, yo …), can be confusing if we aren’t answering on auto-pilot.

Is it a real question, a greeting, an invitation to a counseling session or just some words that were uttered out of habit? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

Regardless of intent or context, there are two great approaches to answer the question, and be true to yourself.

For the moment, we’re going to ignore the option of answering back with “fine how are you” or “s’up” – which are the default responses for most of us. Often, those are out of our mouths before we have a thought about the exchange.

Let’s talk about two approaches.

Approach I – Positive and Real

This method is often the best for work situations and people you might not know as well. However, we are going to add a spin to this. For a moment, think about 2-3 things you are happy about and thankful for. Even on our hardest days, there are a couple of these. Reflect for a moment on them and do your best to truly feel thankful about them.

Now, could you describe these things as outstanding, great or sensational? Are there other positive words you could use to describe them?

When you answer with this intent in mind, you can be honest, positive and thankful at the same time. Even though it’s a few words and just a few seconds in the day, you can put your own personal meaning and intent around these, and project positive energy to your colleague.

When its is genuine like this, your happy answer can be contagious. Feel free to be creative – words like sporty, solid, stellar – can add some levity to everyone’s day.

Conversely, when it seems staged and salesy, it can have an adverse effect and one can come off as plastic.

Approach II – Raw and Real

This method is the best for closer friends, family and situations that will last for more than a few moments. Usually, you can be layered with these responses, and still be true to your feelings.

While we can always find 2-3 positive things in our day, we likely also have a few struggles every day that can get us down. If we’re being honest, and answering the question fully, some of our “how are you” responses are not 100% stellar. Sure, we’ll be okay and get through this – but right now we might not be at our top. That’s okay. Stuff happens, and life is about how we respond to the stuff.

One way to answer this and be true to yourself is say “I’m struggling a little.” That’s more genuine than “okay” and if the other person has time to listen, they can engage and support. If they are busy or feel it’s awkward, it gives them an out too.

While being genuine and real is important, dumping our tragedies on others is not the most responsible thing in the world. However, if the timing is right and your friend really wants to know, absolutely take advantage of the time to share details of your struggles and ask for help.

Where you can, be the empathetic one too. Brain Science studies at Harvard show that empathy can help get people out of dangerous fight/flight/freeze mode – and to be able to access their problem-solving abilities instead. As simple as it may seem, listening, confirming and validating someone is very powerful. Remember, you don’t have to agree or feel sorry for them – just hear them out and validate that you understand where they are coming from.

So, if you want to respond more genuinely, and still be appropriate, you have two approaches.

Please do know that there’s nothing wrong about answering on auto-pilot – you just may miss out on a connection or something new to learn.

So, how are you?