Is asking the question RUOK Enough?

There has been a lot of publicity lately around the new catch phrase to assist you to ask someone close to you whether they are experiencing poor mental health. Asking people we care about the RUOK question is a great first step. But does it go far enough, especially when you use the question literally and don’t ask any additional questions. Does asking RUOK really equip you to feel confident to manage and handle all the potential reactions that you may get from asking this question?

Unfortunately the response to the RUOK question I hear most often from people approached is this… “I’m fine”.

Interestingly, someone who is actually “fine” doesn’t use the response “I’m fine” to describe how they feel. They use expressions like “fine thanks” or “not bad” or “I’m doin’ ok”.

When I hear someone using the expression “I’m fine”, I usually think of the acronym for fine - F.I.N.E – Freaked Out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. So when someone says to me “I’m fine”, what I interpret this to mean is “I feel like my life is out of control and I am freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional”. This is my signal to test the “I’m fine” response and drill a bit deeper.

So how do we get past the “I’m fine” response and really feel confident to ask someone we care about at home or at work how they really are and feel confident to offer support and assistance?

1)   Ask open questions.

The problem with RUOK is that it is in fact a closed question. We can answer this question with a yes or no answer. It is much more engaging to ask open questions where you have the opportunity to start a conversation and explore how a person is thinking and feeling.

  • “How have you been lately? What’s been happening?”
  • “You haven’t seemed like yourself lately – I’ve noticed…...(give some feedback on what you have observed in their appearance, behaviour etc) Is there something you’d like to talk about?”
  • “What’s going on for you at the moment?
  • “Tell me what’s happening for you at the moment?”
  • “How are you going? Would you like to chat about anything?”
  • “I’d love to buy you a coffee and talk about how things are going for you and how you’re managing all the things on your plate”
  • “You look like you might be struggling a bit, can I lend an ear and talk it through with you?”

Be open, be encouraging and be honest. If someone is ready to talk they will usually be thankful that someone noticed they were struggling.

2)   Just listen.

Once you have asked an initial question to initiate a conversation, just let the other person speak. If there is a silent pause, don’t try and fill it with more personal insights and advice. An expression used by coaches is to “hold the space”. Let the other person know you will not talk over them, or try to fill awkward silences; you just want to hear from them.

Your goal at this stage is not to give advice, and to be quite honest a person is less likely to take any advice you give if they don’t feel you understand their problem in the first place. So before you can get to offer any support, you have to let a person have “verbal diarrhoea” (as my mum used to say). You have to have empathy (and remember empathy= understanding).


  • Listening without judgement (about the person or the situation).
  • You do not want to listen to respond.
  • You do not want to listen to give advice.
  • You do not want to rush them.
  • Consider your body language – what does it say about your attentiveness?
  • Don’t try to fix their problems.
  • Don’t talk about your own problems or draw similarities with your experiences.
  • Don’t say “you just need to harden up”, “You’re worrying about nothing” “You’ll be fine”.

3)   What If You Lead The Horse To Water and It Won’t Drink?

Sometimes a person is basically not ready to talk to you yet. Your goal then is to lay out a trough of the most sparkling, crystal clear water you can possibly offer and then gently reinforce the offer over frequent (but not annoying) intervals.

You could try and find out if there are any reasons they don’t feel like talking. You could ask whether they would feel more comfortable talking to another person and whether you could push that person their way. Just let the person know that you are prepared to talk whenever they are ready. Ask permission to just check back in on them in a day or so. Let someone just know that you are thinking of them.

(Be conscious though, that if the situation moves toward crisis point, stronger intervention may be required.)

This is just the beginning. Feeling confident to recognise warning signs, approach people with confidence and know how to initiate a conversation are all valuable tools we all need when taking mutual responsibility to promote good mental health in our communities and workplaces.

Want to know more about Mental Health Awareness and Managing Conversations training for your workplace. Send me an email at to enquire about training to build confidence and work place capability in both leaders and staff.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner.  Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.  You can find her at or