The Lie of “I’m Fine” and Other Emotional Deceptions

The Lie of “I’m Fine” and Other Emotional Deceptions

Why is it So difficult to communicate?  A starting point is a wide-spread lie we tell others — and ourselves.

A misleading exchange, a billion times a day: “Hey, how’s it going?”  “Great, thanks.  You?”  “I’m fine.  C ya…” — has communication occurred, or been blocked? hows-it-goingIn this barrage of “checking in,” there’s no real exchange of information, but there’s a mutual deception.  In asking the question, we pretend that we’ve actually seen and heard the other.  In answering, we’ve followed convention but hidden our experience.  Why? Safety.  It’s “normal” which means it’s comfortable. Speed.  It’s fast, which means we don’t need to get caught up. Script.  We all know we’re “supposed to” stay on the surface, so we do.  

No Blood, No Foul?

So what?  We’re following a social convention — and isn’t it better than simply ignoring the other person?  The risk of this surface non-communication is the illusion of inquiry.  If we walk out from this “discussion” pretending we’ve actually understood, we block the real data that’s available. I suspect that as this surface transaction has become the cultural norm, simultaneously we’ve found it increasingly difficult to have more substantive dialogue.  “Norms,” by definition, are what’s comfortable.  What’s proper.  What’s prudent.  So we’ve become used to a shallow exchange, and this leads us to miss invaluable data.  As George Bernard Shaw famously said,

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Don’t fall in that trap.  Remember this “secret:”

There is always more to the story.

How To Ask About Feelings

Nearly 20 years ago, I was teaching about the Vietnam war, and talked one of the veterans who counseled other vets.  I explained that my dad was a veteran, but he’d never told me about his experience in the war.  The counselor asked, “When are you asking him?  On the way to the airport?  In a busy restaurant?  You just can’t give a real answer to that question unless you’re sitting by a lake with a case of beer and a whole weekend ahead of you.” The more complex and challenging a topic, the more time and space will be needed for a real answer.  If I’m going to be vulnerable enough to reveal something ugly, scary, painful, serious — or even just complicated — I’m not going to do it in a casual, hurried, public setting.  I’m not going to talk if I can tell you don’t have time.  And, if you want me to be honest about my experience, let’s go real.  It’s back to those 3 Ss: Safety:  Start by building a trusting relationship; ask questions that are appropriate to the level of trust… or trust+1 (slightly more serious/challenging than yesterday’s question).  Make sure there’s sufficient privacy and time for the seriousness of the question.  Pull someone aside, go for a walk, sit side-by-side, make a space. Speed:  More serious conversations take longer.  Find five minutes for a five-minute-level check-in.  Make an hour for a much more serious one.  If you’re in a rush, people feel that, and they’ll conform to the “I’m in a rush” signal you’re sending (or, if they don’t they might need to learn that norm…) Script:  While “surface” is the starting norm, the way you respond tells the other person what to expect next.  If they perceive that you’re following a script, you send a message that this isn’t real.  If you invalidate their ideas and feelings at the outset, they “know” not to be honest.  If you push or pull, they “know” this isn’t a real dialogue.  On the other hand, if you take turns, sharing, asking, listening, recognizing, reflecting… as the dialogue flows back and forth, it also flows beyond the surface.  outside-inside

What do you think?

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Written by Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.


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  1. Yes this is the way to talk practically with those to whom we don’t consider our near n dear ones.but if we get true friend.we just get cry.n say whatever happened to do we feel.what we would do . so it doesn’t matter.our true friend will understand just by seeing to our face.

  2. I refuse to participate in polite culture, I don’t even know what the question “how are you?” means. When a person says “how are you?” and actually expects/wants an answer, I usually say “no comment”. Most people don’t even expect an answer and move on, a small percentage get mad that they can’t obligate me to do what they want.

    • Depends on who’s asking. But most of the time i’d say IM GOOD(good or not), THANKS. I HOPE YOU ARE TOO. I wont leave a question marked sentence if i dont like a further convo with the person hahaha

  3. Few people actually want to hear the ‘true’ answer, and if the true answer is given, the person asking either must stand there and listen (usually awkwardly or resentfully) or quickly excuse themselves and end up feeling crappy for doing so (at least for a moment).

    This being said, I believe we can usually tell who is asking in earnest and who is merely being sociable. It’s when we start isolating ourselves by giving false answers to even those we love and trust to know that serious problems can occur.

    • true… telling someone (only) simply what “they” want to hear (or what “they” feel comfortable enough to hear)… isn’t really being authentically honest or truthful, is it. I think if people don’t really (want) to hear how a person is actually feeling, coping with, adjusting to, or existing with (or how they’re only capable of being) then they shouldn’t ask the question (how are you?) at all in the first place or instance. otherwise thats just “pretending” one cares when they don’t (basically.. it’s purely humouring them).

  4. Very few people are truly going to get an honest answer about this from me. Most people don’t care, they only ask because it’s socially expected and for many it’s reflective. It becomes painfully obvious when the person asking doesn’t even give you an opportunity to answer.

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