09/03/2012 08:55 EDT | Updated 11/03/2012 05:12 EDT

When You Ask "How's it Going?" Are You Prepared to Hear the Answer?


My name is Taj, and I'm a relief support worker at The Mustard Seed, an organization working with individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty, in inner-city Calgary.

My job entails a variety of different roles, from working the front lines where I engage directly with the guests who access our services, to answering phone calls from those who find themselves suddenly on the streets with no idea where to go, to helping create and facilitate educational street experiences to teach kids and teenagers about homelessness and poverty.

How's it going?

Those three little words are the opening to so many conversations. Think about the number of times you might use that line when you greet co-workers on a Monday morning at the office, or when you pick the kids up from school, or when you sit down for coffee with a good friend. It's a universal question that works well in a variety of settings. But have you ever stopped to think about the answer?

Until I started working at The Mustard Seed about a year and a half ago, I asked and was asked that question several times a day. The reply I got, and the reply I gave, was almost always the same: "I'm good, thanks, and you?" The response from the other person was inevitably something along the lines of, "Good, thanks," or "Not bad, thank you!" It's a script where each speaker knows their lines; it's predictable, anticipated, and expected.

You can imagine my surprise, then, during my first week of work at The Mustard Seed, when I sat down next to one of our guests at lunch. I played my part and asked, "How's it going?"

"Not so good," she responded.

"That's good," I almost replied automatically, until my brain kicked in and started processing her words.

Wait. What? Did she just say, "NOT so good"? This isn't how it's supposed to go. I know my lines. This isn't part of the script! What do I do now? Summoning all the intelligence I possessed in that moment, I managed to reply clumsily, "Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. Do you want to talk about it?"

She proceeded to spend the next hour telling me her life story of abuse and neglect, trauma no individual should ever have to experience, but which is all too common on the streets. Brand new on the job, I had no words of wisdom, no eloquent advice to give her. So I just listened. When she had finished her lunch, she got up to leave...but not before thanking me for my time.

It was then that I made myself a promise: I would never again ask somebody, "How's it going?" if I wasn't prepared to hear the answer.

That means that when I take paperwork across the street between our two buildings downtown -- a task that should take less than two minutes -- I allow myself half an hour, because I know, with complete certainty that I'm going to run into somebody along the way who wants to talk about their day.

It means that if my shift at our shelter ends at 11 p.m., and a guest approaches me needing to have a private conversation at 10:55 p.m., I had better accept the fact that I might not leave until close to midnight. But that's okay, because the truth is this: I want to know how they're doing.

Sometimes it's not logistically possible for me to have an hour-long discussion with a single guest, because I have to attend meetings, or I'm being radioed to provide assistance to another staff member, or I'm already in the middle of a conversation with someone else. When that happens, I tell the person honestly, "Hey, I really want to know how you're doing, but I know I'm not able to give you the time you need right now. Will you be here in an hour so I can come find you and you can fill me in on what's been happening in your life?" But never again will I casually call out, "Hey, how's it going?" over my shoulder as I'm speed-walking past on my way to doing something else.

My personal relationships have deepened so much because I stopped being willing to let the conversation end at the surface level of, "Not bad, thanks, and you?" If you're my friend and things are going well in your life, I want to know why they're going well and I want to celebrate with you. Conversely, if you're having a rough day, I want to know what happened, and let you know that I'm there to support you in that time.

As important as I've realized this practice is in everyday relationships, it is even more important when working with vulnerable populations. Think about how often men and women on the streets are passed by without a second glance, how often we turn away or cross to the other side of the road just to avoid making eye contact with them.

The homeless spend much of their lives feeling invisible, forgotten and utterly without value. What a tremendous blessing a genuine, unhurried conversation can be for these marginalized individuals! Something so easy and so simple can make a world of difference.

So, let me ask you again: How's it going?