Part 2: How to have a conversation about mental health in the workplace?

Creating the middle conversation

You are now in a conversation, feeling comfortable and relaxed but wondering how to move to the next part of the story. As with a book, if the chapters jump from one subject to another without any obvious thread of continuity, the reader can become confused and have to re-read the end of the previous chapter to re-orientate themselves to the story. In a conversation, this could manifest itself as seemingly random questions being asked, perhaps repetition of things already said and train of thought being lost. The middle part of the conversation needs focus and flow for it to be meaningful and time-efficient for both parties. Remember, this is not a counselling session, you do not need to be analysing or diagnosing, and you do not need to be cramming the time you have with finding out as much information as possible, but you do need to be a skilled communicator. It’s vital that your approach is warm, calm and ordered to avoid your colleague feeling as though they are being put on the spot, interrogated or judged. This is a precious opportunity to really connect and show that you care, the goal should be that you have enough detail to support your colleague and move to the final part of the story. So, how do you get there?

1. Remember that this is not a social conversation.

It has a focus and purpose which makes it helpful and will be your foundation for engaging more effectively with your colleague. You will have started the process of meeting with your colleague with an aim in mind – perhaps finding out about their work-life balance, what types of support or training you might be able to offer or indeed whether that person is OK to be at work at that time. Whatever the aim (overall), your focus (more specific detail) and purpose (reason) should be congruent with that. You may find that the conversation goes off at different tangents but try and find a path which will help you get back on track. Therefore, the questions you decide to ask should be clear and unambiguous. Phrase them in such a way that you will get an answer you can work with and again, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity. If you are working towards a solution focussed outcome, discuss options which are manageable and measurable. Allow your colleague to ‘buy into’ the solution to cement a more collaborative relationship with you and the business.

2. Ask permission.

Ask for your colleagues’ permission to write down some key points if the conversation presents several areas for action. This should only be as an aide-memoire rather than an exhaustive list of everything that gets discussed, unless of course it is part of a formal review, appraisal or similar which may have designated documentation attached to it. Remember the guidelines on GDPR and storage of personal data, always be transparent about information you are collecting, why and how it will be used. Sensitive data breaches are sadly very destructive both to the individuals concerned and for the businesses involved but we also need to remember that legislation is there to protect us all where our personal information is potentially at risk. Any record of the conversation needs to be managed in accordance with your policies and your colleague offered the opportunity to have a copy of your notes if they choose.

3. Make it a human interaction.

Make this a human interaction and one that doesn’t have a robotic or corporate feel to it. This doesn’t mean that it should be infused with sympathy (unless obviously indicated) but empathy instead where you are showing that you understand the context of that person’s story. Maintaining eye contact, open posturing or gently leaning forward whilst maintaining appropriate social distancing are key non-verbal cues to show that you are actively listening. It also shows that you have presence, being able to be in that moment with someone even if their story is distressing, and recognising that it has taken a lot of courage for the person sitting with you to share that information. Use words that are familiar considering cultural or age-related differences in possible interpretation. ‘Feeling words’ such as sad, worried or confused are common words which are generally well understood, whereas depressed or out of sorts are more difficult to assign meaning particularly when your relationship with your colleague is purely a professional one. Lots of people may have signs and symptoms of depression but not have a medical diagnosis for it – they could mean that they are finding life depressing, or that someone else has noticed that they look depressed. Make sure you do not make assumptions about what is said as this can change the path of the conversation and leave you both feeling dissatisfied or making decisions which are not based on fact. A unique human response is using humour, not to be confused with sarcasm or belittling something that has been shared. It is the context here which is vital – if you’re wondering whether to interject in this way, then don’t; it is more likely to be a defence mechanism for you rather than a welcome distraction for your colleague. However, used correctly, it can cut through an overly intense situation, create a moment of mutual bonding and buy you both a moment of breathing space. Human communication and behaviours are complex, they are underwritten by knowledge, tradition and social expectation and this means that we have a treasure trove of skills and responses we can use. Just keep in mind, as before, that this is not a social conversation and be mindful which are appropriate to use and which feel the most natural to you given the circumstances.

5. Monologue vs dialogue?

A true conversation does not happen with only one person being present and engaged. However, during dialogue, there may be brief times where monologue is the communication style of choice as it benefits the outcome for both parties. It gives the opportunity for the person sitting with you to have a voice, and to be heard, it means that experiences and feelings can be described in the person’s own words and style, it gives permission for those experiences and feelings to be valid and real plus it can release tension and pent-up emotion. As the receiver of that monologue, silence, nodding, facial expression and stillness will show respect for what is being verbalised, this may of course be the first time this information has been disclosed. Equally, you also have a professional opportunity to hold the stage at some point in the conversation. There could be certain policies or procedures to advise your colleague about, you may want to convey your thoughts personally, as well as from a business perspective, on what you have been told and you may want to set out a plan for how you can move forward. Having an effective conversation is like two people passing a ball backwards and forwards along a line until you get to the endpoint. There are no rules about how long you hold the ball for, whether you walk with it or throw it, kick or roll it back to your opposite player. This allows for time, thought and ‘tactics’ (or skills) to come into play – a conversation is the same with the emphasis on getting to the endpoint safely, with both participants still engaged and feeling as though they have arrived at the same place, perhaps with different ways of getting there, but still achieving a mutually beneficial outcome.

6. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Being human however is also about not being perfect! Sometimes we don’t get things right and that can lead us to feel inadequate or embarrassed. Be honest in a conversation if you are finding it difficult to connect with the story or indeed if you don’t feel that you are the best person to talk to this particular colleague. There are many diverse relationships within business settings and recognising that someone else might be better placed to achieve the aim of the conversation is a professional judgment. Recognise your limitations but also your strengths – starting the process and signposting on can be just as beneficial as achieving your aim in one meeting.

We are all living the human experience – it is a diverse and complex variety of positives, negatives and everything in between. If we were expert in all of them, we could potentially have a perfect existence, but this still wouldn’t truly factor in all types of emergencies, crises or threat. This is where our flight, fight or freeze responses come into play, and support from family, friends, colleagues and peers is generally our golden ticket to be able to cope. We  therefore have a duty of care to help whatever our skill level, motivation or reward.

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