Whenever I talk with someone in person, in an online meeting, or on the phone, the first question I usually ask is: “How are you?” I’ve probably asked that question dozens of times a day for most of my life. I must admit, though, that while I genuinely care how others are doing, until recently the question was mostly perfunctory. I really didn’t expect an actual answer. I expected them to say they were fine so I could go on with the “more important” point of the conversation.
I suddenly find myself asking this question in a whole new way. During the coronavirus pandemic, I can no longer take the physical or mental health of the people I’m talking to for granted. This innocent question that was mostly a social nicety has taken on new significance. Now when I say “How are you?” I’m really asking:
- Are you feeling well?
- Are you lonely?
- Do you have the food or other supplies you need?
- Are you able to manage being at home alone all day long?
- What is your day like?
- Are you able to get done the work you should do?
- Are you able to sleep?
This short question is now much more important. And a simple, “Fine!” is no longer a satisfying answer. I want to dig deeper. I want to spend a few minutes making sure the person I’m talking to is really OK. All of us are screening our friends and relatives right now to see if they really are “fine” or if they need more help.
As I thought about this phenomenon and the way my interactions with people have changed over the past few weeks, I realized that there is a well-known theory that can help me think about what I’m asking. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, Abraham Maslow published a theory now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s illustrated by a pyramid with five levels:
- The base of the pyramid represents physical needs such as food, water and clothing.
- The second level refers to safety needs like money, home, and job.
- The third level is about belonging and love. We think of family, a sense of connection, and friendship.
- The fourth level is esteem, and includes self-esteem and respect from others.
- The fifth level at the top of the pyramid is self actualization, referring to a person’s desire to fulfill his or her potential.
Maslow suggested that the needs closer to the top of the pyramid can’t be dealt with if the needs farther down the pyramid are not met. As we ask each other “How are you?” we can begin at the bottom and ask specific questions about those things first. Then we can work our way up the pyramid.
We don’t have to ask every person we encounter about all of these things at once. But Maslow’s Hierarchy reminds me that there are things I have taken for granted in the past (rightly or wrongly) that I had better be thinking about now.
This article contains several graphics illustrating Maslow’s Hierarchy. When you begin a meeting in these strange days, consider showing one of these and asking “Where are you on this chart?” That’s a great starting point to talk more deeply than just asking the question “How are you?”
I can imagine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs being used in church council meetings, in staff meetings, checking in with church members, or even at the beginning of a Bible study. All of us care about those with whom we do ministry. This tool might help us do it a little better when our care needs to be more deliberate.
Faith Formation Ministries provides congregational faith formation leaders the opportunity to meet in-person or connect digitally or by phone with members of our team and other ministry leaders for coaching and support. Whether it’s a one-time, one-on-one conversation or a long-term peer group, we are here to help. For more information about our regional catalyzer, visit crcna.org/FaithFormation/coaching