When Your Mate Says “I’m Fine” & You Think They’re Not: Ask Twice

Asking a friend how they are, and asking twice, could make all the difference to their mental health, giving them the chance to reach out, open up, and discuss their feelings. Read on to learn tips on how to probe further and conduct a meaningful conversation.

Questions like “how are you” or “how’s your day” are in need of a drastic makeover. With more and more people using them as a form of a polite greeting more than a question (your friendly Starbucks barista is definitely guilty), it is increasingly hard to know if the person asking really wants to know what’s up with you. 

Of course, when it is a friend who is asking, they are probably genuinely concerned. But the truth can be too complex or embarrassing to tell. And some people are just not comfortable discussing their feelings. As a result, even when we are not okay, to say that we are doing fine or patronise with the usual — “I’m good. How are you?” is just more convenient. 

What to do about it?

The Solution: Ask Twice

Time to Change, a British social movement to change the way people think and act about mental health problems, recommends that you ask again. 

When someone says to you, “I’m fine”, 
and you sense that they are not, ask again.
Ask twice or more!

A study commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K. found that the average adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, though just 19% really mean it. Asking twice is more likely to result in an honest answer because people feel like you actually care and are willing to listen.

To drive the “Ask Twice” message home, Time to Change launched a series of provocative short films across various social media channels, combining humour with mindfulness in its creative execution. The campaign targeted adult males, as research showed that many men do not recognise the signs that a mate might be struggling with a mental health problem. It is also harder for men, compared to women, to share what is troubling them and to ask for help. Watch the two commercials here: 

1. Wilderness: Pinned under the Log
2. Pub: Snake at the Pool Table 

Bottom line:
To really find out how your mate is, #AskTwice.
If your mate’s acting differently, #AskTwice.

Within one year, the “Ask Twice” campaign encouraged over 600,000 men to ask their mates twice, with a further 2.27 million saying it made them think about stepping in for a mate.

Tips on How to Ask Twice

Asking twice does not mean repeating the same question, which may sound annoying. Ask in different ways the second time. For example:  

  • “Are you sure?” or “I’ve noticed that […] Is everything ok?” Show that you have been observing and that you are truly concerned and want to check in on them.
  • “Okay, I’m here if you need me.” Respect that they do not want to talk right now and let them know that they can come back to you any time.

“That’s nice! To be honest, I didn’t have such a great day myself.” Open up about yourself first to show that it is okay to share problems.

Tips on How to Conduct the Conversation 

Should you manage to probe further and get your mate to talk about their problems, here’s how to ensure a meaningful conversation. 

  • Be prepared and take it seriously. You may hear something traumatising or something you may not understand. You may also witness some strong emotions. Be sure to hold back all judgement. Never treat it as a joke or dismiss their feelings.
  • Listen and acknowledge. You do not need to be an expert armed with tips and advice. Listening is enough. Show that you empathise with simple comments like “that sounds tough” or “it must be difficult”. You may want to highlight the positives, such as “look on the bright side” or “it will be fine” but be aware that they can sound dismissive if you do not acknowledge the negatives first. 
  • Ask open-ended questions. Ask things like “How does that make you feel?” or “What can I do to help?” Get the conversation flowing by encouraging them to expand on what they said or ask for clarifications. Show that you are interested.
  • Add your observation. But do not feel like you need to help fix the problem. Remember that this is a conversation, not a counselling session. You are the friend who listens. Fixing the problem is a separate matter, only if you have the capacity. But if you are to give advice or opinions, check if they are wanted. For example, “I can’t decide for you, but do you want my opinion?” Be sure to focus on what can be done than what should have been done. You can also share similar experiences to show that they are not alone in struggling. But avoid letting your experience overshadow theirs in the conversation.
  • End the conversation properly, not abruptly. If you know that you need to rush off somewhere, let your mate know in advance.
  • Respect their privacy and do not recklessly share the information they have told you. No one likes to have their problems shared around or talked about by others.

Helen Keller, an American author and educator who was blind and deaf, once said, I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”

We all need a healthy network of friends and family whom we are comfortable to confide in, and in return, we lend them our support. You do not have to be in the U.K. to join the “Ask Twice” movement. Ask a friend today if they are alright, and then ask them again—because sometimes asking once is just not enough.