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Practicing vulnerability... and trading small talk for real connection

What do you say when someone asks, "How are you?" If you're ready to leave small talk behind and spark real conversations and connection instead, here are 7 things to say instead of the default "I'm fine. How are you?"

Her email came at a time I needed it most. I was still in the hospital, not able to walk (or stand, for that matter), and well... feeling sorry for myself.

How could I stay here much longer? What was I missing with my family? My little ones? What was my life going to look like after all this? So many people were giving, helping, and serving… how could I ever repay them? When was it going to be my turn to give?

I’d been within these hospital walls for almost two weeks and though I’d made progress, walking still looked impossible despite the full schedule of daily physical and occupational therapy. And then an email from a complete stranger. “You don’t know me… but I wanted to reach out and let you know I’ve been praying for you… I’ve gained strength and hope from your various blog posts. Thank you for that. I have no doubt you are touching many through your gift...”

A year later from that first unexpected message in my inbox and handfuls of from-the-heart emails in between, I finally met her! We’d spent over a year encouraging each other through our journeys, and what I didn’t know at the time of her first email, but had since learned was how much her life was overrun by health struggles of her own.

Which is why the conversation of honesty and real life we had around a kitchen table last summer touched me so much. Even with all her struggles, she told me about her life - the ups and downs - without ever coming across as complaining.

She shared in a way that was honest yet relatable. From the heart and all about real, true connection. And her questions to me were just as genuine and caring. Our conversation was effortless and it filled my soul.

"How are you?"

Practicing vulnerability in an honest, yet optimistic and relatable way like my friend did is harder than it seems. I’m lucky to have so many kind, caring people around me who ask and want to know how I’m doing. "I'm fine," or "I'm good. How are you?" often come out of my mouth without even thinking about it. I'm challenging myself to say something (anything!) but that generic response.

Whether it's with a stranger you're waiting next to in line at the grocery store or a family member who is asking because they really want to know, a few simple but thoughtful words are so much more meaningful than the default, "I'm good. How are you?"

Here are three simple things I learned from her about sparking genuine conversation. Maybe they'll help you next time you feel hesitant, like I sometimes do, about opening up when someone asks how you're doing or how your day's been.

Be honest. Sometimes I hold back because I don't want to sound pessimistic or come across as complaining. (This is especially true when my health problems seem all-consuming!) I don't know where to start or where to end. Or maybe it's just not the place or time to talk about it. You don't have to go deep to be honest. Share something unique or interesting, even if it has nothing to do with your big picture life story right now.

Start small. You don't have to be elaborate or unload your entire life story. Even just a simple, two-sentence response can be meaningful. Sometimes it will lead to a deeper conversation, and sometimes it won't. Either way, sharing who you are and what your life is all about seems easiest when you start small.

Ask, then listen. The best storytelling goes both ways. And the best conversations usually follow genuine questions. I wish asking better questions came easier for me, but I’ve found the best way to ask a good question that leads to a thoughtful response is to be truly interested. When you genuinely care and are ready to listen, the questions will come. What do you say when someone asks,

7 things to say instead of "I'm fine. How are you?"

And if you're like me and need examples planned out in your mind ahead of time, here are 7 genuine ways to answer the question “How are you?” that can lead to real conversations.

  1. I’m actually really excited for this weekend. I’m planning on ____.
  2. It’s been a good day. I haven’t been able to stop smiling about .
  3. Lately I’ve been reading ____. It’s really had me thinking about ____. What do you think about it?
  4. I feel like this week really pushed me to my limits. I’m ready to start fresh on Monday! :) You ever have those kind of weeks?
  5. Believe it or not I ____ for the first time this week. It was great!
  6. Honestly, I’m feeling . Any suggestions?
  7. ____ is really important to me and it’s been great to spend some time on it this week.

Real people, real conversations

In our world of earbuds, lit up screens, and rushing there’s even more to be gained by real conversations. It may start with presence but it’s ultimately found in our willingness to connect. To serve more quickly, to open our hearts more readily, and to care enough about the person in front of us to speak more honestly.

Breaking old patterns doesn’t come easy but after seeing vulnerability in action I’m feeling more determined than ever to go after real connection. The beautiful kind of connection I experienced with my friend and that makes all the busyness and distractions not feel so important anymore.

I know it’s going to take practice, but I have to believe that the more you create that real connection the more you’ll realize that it’s worth the risk you’re taking to get there… and hopefully it gets a tiny bit easier each time.

So dear friend, how are you? A little vulnerability is sometimes all it takes to trade small talk for a genuine conversation. Click to read the article for a few simple ways to spark real connection, plus 7 things to say instead of 7 ways to answer the question "How are you" that will trade small talk for real talk.

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