Asking “How is Everything?” could be a conversation ender
Have you ever noticed that when you sometimes ask, “How is everything going?” that you get a conversation- ending, “Fine.” Reaching out to your partner for connection with that question just didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped. It didn’t feel satisfying or connected. Often, you can even sense something unsettling is going on with them and you just got told in very few words that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Or, at least that’s what you interpret from the meaning you make of that one word “Fine.”
What if there is more to the story, or a different story? What if he, or she, is perfectly willing to talk but the question you were using wasn’t the key to opening that door? Language and conversation is a complex process that we immersed ourselves in for years and mastered until it becomes unconsciously automatic. But if you try to learn a new language, you discover that there are nuances that change interpretations, meaning, and responses you get in certain situations. Our own language might have some of those nuances that we at times miss as well. We may not have picked up on how our partner processes the same words and phrases differently than we would.
Here is an example:
What happens if you ask your partner (let’s assume a man), “Is everything okay?” Men tend to be more literal. Their mind will begin to do some automated analysis. Their mind is quickly at work trying to evaluate literally “EVERYTHING” and give you a correct response.
In lightening quick speed the mind races through topics of:
- Did I take out the trash
- Is she upset with me because of the trash
- Have the cars had their oil changes in time and do I need to swap to snow tires yet?
- Did the yard get cleaned up?
- Are the dishes done?
- How is our financial situation?
- Did the bills get paid?
- Is everyone in the family healthy?
- Are work projects on schedule so my boss is happy with my work?
- Can we afford the vacation we want to take next summer?
- How are our investments doing?
- Are we going to be able to retire on time?
- How will global warming affect us during the coming winter storms and how do I best prepare?
So the mans’ mind does a quick assessment of all these things and 24 others looking for things of serious concern. In the effort to provide and protect the household he has many things he keeps a mindful eye on. A quick evaluation over all this mental territory doesn’t give him any major concerns worth mentioning and so he can report back that, “Everything is fine.”
What does everything really mean?
The literal version of the question is not about them, or how they feel, or if they are feeling stressed about something. They hear the question to be about “EVERYTHING”. Nothing in the question directed their attention to what they were feeling. And since men don’t usually put much importance on their feelings they passed right over that item. They might feel that the stressful issue is just one of the normal issues that come and go in life and not worth mentioning. You weren’t necessarily being dismissed in your bid. They might have been really open to talking but the question seemed to be about other things.
Your intended meaning might have been a shorthand way of saying, “How are you feeling?” The actual words you used to structure the question came out slightly differently. The term “EVERYTHING” directed their attention and meaning outward to a much broader landscape. Your intent wasn’t heard in the language you used.
In my experience men are more literal and will interpret the term “everything” to mean to “EVERYTHING”. In that context they tend to disregard the importance of themselves in the answer. A woman might tend to be more social and in touch with her feelings. Emotions and feelings are more important and so they get factored in on such questions and oil changes don’t.
One is not more correct or less than the other. The important take away from this is to be aware that when you ask someone, “How is everything?” that their mind might run through some different circuits and issues in answering than you had in mind.
So then, if “Everything is Fine,” what does that mean?
When we get the reply, “everything is fine”, many of our internal interpretation circuits automatically fire as well. Our mind applies meaning to those words that may not be part of what they are communicating. The feeling of it being a “conversation ender” might be our interpretation. There is no specific information that we can continue the conversation with, no more back and forth, so we might interpret, that a door has been closed. We likely didn’t consciously choose this interpretation, but it happened in those automatic circuits of our interpretation.
We have tried to open up a channel of connection and we interpret we were pushed away. This kind of interpretation of meaning happens without words or thoughts. Our unconscious beliefs patterned into communication do it automatically. Unconsciously they can produce a feeling of rejection, dismissal, and isolation on our part. In fact, our partner may not be pushing us away at all. They are just answering the question as literally as they heard it. They didn’t hear your question as a bid for connection.
Creating connection instead of just asking “how is everything?”
To accomplish that conversational connection, try asking different questions of engagement “How are you feeling?” is a more specifically directed question. With it, you are inviting your partner to put their attention on what they feel and to share about it. It is easier to focus and answer on this singular issue when a question directs our attention there. This alone won’t necessarily be enough to open up the flow of conversation. Your partner’s ability to pay attention to their emotions, their ability to articulate those feelings into words, and their comfort sharing with you, will affect what type of response you get.
You can also guide their attention with a more specific question. Consider sharing what you are feeling and what you are observing first. This can give a context for the question you are asking and prime your partner on where to look inward. “I wanted to check in with you. It seems to me that you have something on your mind and aren’t as relaxed and present as your usual self. I was wondering how you were feeling?”
If all this seems a bit tedious or a lot of work, then you are getting the idea of what it takes to have some honest conversations with your partner. Talking comfortably about emotions is not something that most people learned to do growing up. Having honest conscious conversations about emotions, what you want, and feelings requires effort and work. We have to learn a new vocabulary and language and build new neural pathways of thinking and speaking to have those discussions. With practice they become easier and fluent, like a new language does with time.
To help better understand how your unconscious beliefs affect your interpretations and emotions, sample the four free sessions of the Self Mastery Course to find out more.