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Friends are reaching out to each other more and more during this crisis. It feels great to know that someone cares about you. We want to feel connected with the people that we care about.

But amidst these gestures of kindness and hands digitally extended for connection, we are sometimes just not able to connect on a very deep level. Sometimes, it’s so clear that both people want to give each other the space to express what we’re feeling inside, but that connection doesn’t happen.

On a recent episode of the Tim Ferris Show, Esther Perel (a psychotherapist and author, whose work focuses on relationships) put forth a suggestion to help with this problem:

We can ask our friends how they feel, a second time.

Maybe that’s crazy talk during normal times, but we’re in a different context now. This is a chance to allow ourselves to go to more vulnerable places than we’re usually comfortable with. We don’t need to force our friends to talk about their feelings. But we can certainly try to create permission for people to express what’s actually going on for them.

Tim and Esther recount a situation that’s familiar to many of us — when we ask a friend “how are you?” they’ll respond with something along the lines of “nobody in my family is sick, I’m doing great all things considered”. Our friend hasn’t really responded about how they’re feeling.

A distinction that Esther Perel draws is that how things are going is not the same things as how you are feeling.

So, when we are talking to somebody who we are reasonably close with, if we ask them “how are you?” and they respond by telling us how things are going, we should consider asking them again, how are you? We can clarify by saying something like “I’m happy to hear that things are in place. But I’m asking, how are you feeling?”

Sometimes we need someone else to do that for us. I know that for myself, there are times when I’m incredibly relieved to have a friend ask me a second time (one way or another), but how are you feeling? When someone gives us permission to actually express what’s going on for us internally, it’s a real gift.

It’s a gift that’s not very expensive to give, either. And we’ve got more time than we did before.

Of course, this can be taken too far — we shouldn’t push people too hard to talk about how they’re feeling if they clearly don’t want to. We’re all in a different place in any given moment and sometimes the person you’re talking to won’t be ready to talk about how they feel. But we can take this extra step and give some light encouragement, incase people are undecided about whether or not they want to express what they’re feeling. You don’t have to go all Good Will Hunting. We can respect each other’s boundaries, and still try to create space.

It takes a bit of a leap of faith on our part, and theirs. Both people have to be willing to take the risk to go to a more vulnerable place together. But by taking this risk, we mutually create the potential for real connection and catharsis.

During this time of isolation, we desperately need to feel seen and understood by other people. We need to connect. We need to know that we’re not alone in our experience of this. And we need to be able to express our experience of what’s happening right now. We can help make that possible, by asking our friends a second time — but, how are you?