The Second Question

I talk to people in elevators. Even unfamiliar faces open to a smile with a passing comment on the weather and a “How are you?” Almost invariably the answer is “Fine.” And in moments we part, wishing each other well. A graceful verbal pas de deux.

But this story can take unexpected turns.

Seated in a restaurant some months ago, a woman approached me. She was familiar but out of our usual context. Then in but a second, I recognized her, a physician I used to see annually, until she left her private practice for an administrative position.

My smile met hers, and she asked, “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said.

Then she asked, “Really fine?”

It was no longer an elevator conversation. Not settling for the usual dance, she had moved beyond the pro forma query and the automatic response.

As it happened, I was in good spirits, so I reaffirmed my initial answer. But later I recalled her second question and was grateful for her persistent interest. It caused me to consider how often I asked only the first question, even of close friends and family. Was I too busy, or too self-absorbed to ask, or maybe I’d rather not know?

Why would I rather not know?

On giving it serious thought, I recognized that between youth and my middle years, my behavior had shifted. When our kids were still young and became ill, I snapped into action, taking responsibility for their recovery with a purposeful ease. I had the power and control to select the right doctor and administer the care that would make them well. This was the role a parent should play and I did. By taking charge, my anxiety eased.

But years later, when our children were grown and independent, a major medical issue arose for one of our adult sons. This time my husband Len became the more attentive parent. When surgery was scheduled, he traveled some distance to join our daughter-in-law by his side. Afterward it was Len who frequently called to ask how the recovery and follow up treatment were going. I waited to be told and was to some degree avoidant. No less concerned, but having ceded the important decisions to others, I backed away—and my anxiety grew.

I think this is why. When one of our adult kids faced a problem, Len could listen and be empathic without believing he had to influence or direct the outcome. Not me—I slipped back to my old script, longing to protect even grown children and help them reestablish their equilibrium. But now I no longer had the ability to do so. I had to acknowledge a new boundary, but since I was no longer in charge, worry took over. My withdrawal at the time of crisis was an attempt, albeit a failed one, to be self-protective.

It has taken me far too long to learn that sometimes simply listening, seeking to understand, and expressing sympathy are enough. I do not need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for a decision being made. Giving up that mandate, which still requires a mindful pause, restores calm.

Once again a personal insight informed my professional practice. When I met with a client to discuss their concern, my first question was often, “How are you doing?” And if the response was perfunctory, I’d ask the second question.

Now, with friends and family, sometimes I ask the third question, “Is there anything I can do?”

I expect their answer will probably be no, but the question is an invitation to talk further if and when the time is right, to have a conversation that may serve us well and enrich an intimate connection.

Just the asking brings comfort, for both of us. And on these new terms, I really do want to know. 

17 thoughts on “The Second Question

  1. Bea,

    We have 3 chillins and 7 grands. I appreciate your observations – most relevant.

    Let me know when the book is ready to discuss some Wednesday on the program.



    Lewis Gatch

    Gatch Law Office
    8050 Hosbrook Rd., Suite 102
    Cincinnati, OH 45236
    (513) 984-3587

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  2. That was a very nice article, Bea. As lawyers we feel the obligation to solve problems that are brought to us by our family and friends rather than simply listening and offering support. I’ve slowly learned and accepted the difference between being a lawyer and being a father or friend.

  3. Bea, I will enjoy channeling you when I remember to ask the second question. And I’m glad to hear that you’re really fine!

  4. My college, IvyTech Community College of Indiana, is located on the Levee directly above the Ohio River. The Convention Center also sits on the Levee across the the street. We share the same parking garage which is in the IvyTech building. . The Court House is in the next block. Many meetings are held on the 4h floor of IvyTech. We have five floors. There are always lots of diverse conversations in the two elevators. Fun place to be.

  5. I very much appreciate your observations and the fact this new course actually perpetuates a mutual peace of mind. I think too that your response must feel empowering to them as well… that you find them capable of sorting out their thoughts and questions and perhaps identifying needs or even solutions. Just my two cents worth .

  6. Words of wisdom! My line is how’s it going? … then I add… what have you been doing these days? ;0)… but the kid thing well that’s one I’ll never figure out… you always want to take over and often they would love you to… Appendicitis in Switzerland… well let us know how it’s going… luckily we didn’t have to test it, it was just a false alarm… I was glad he was there and not Columbia where he’d been the year before.

    1. Having a child or loved one ill in a distant land, that seems like the ultimate cause for anxiety, and a cool head I love receiving your feedback, Anne..

  7. Bea, I always enjoy your thoughtful pieces…often with a sense of “wish I couldv’e written that.” Thanks for sharing in this forum.

  8. Loved this post, Bea. I learned to reach out to family and friends beyond the “first question” by really listening. Listening was the hardest part! I still have work to do on that!Pam

    1. Pam, I,too, need to constantly remind myself not to go into “fix-it” mode and just listen to understand. We are both a work in progress. Bea

  9. Hi, I tried to send this comment but couldn’t figure out how to do it as me rather than as ontheotherhand:

    Bea, It takes a spacious, well organized life to be able to ask the second and third questions authentically. Good for you and those around you. —Bob

    But what I was really tempted to say was are you sure you aren’t a man:

    > > t has taken me far too long to learn that sometimes simply listening, seeking to understand, and expressing sympathy are enough. I do not need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for a decision being made. >


    1. Well, all to the good. I would like to sing to the rooftops your blog . But, a man? No, I think this is a universal man/woman trait, the wish to be understood wins out over listening to understand the “other”.

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