Conversations about mental health are often conversations where people struggle with ‘the right thing to say’ or ‘the fear of offending someone’. The problem is, the worst thing we can do is do nothing.
We are ‘social animals’ and being respected and included is really important to us. Our ‘social brains’ (check out the full 3-part brain theory here) want nothing more than to be part of the ’herd’. So when someone is struggling with their mental health, they may already feel disconnected from others: if our behaviour towards them then changes, it’s likely we will trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response.
How to avoid this? By what we say and how we say it.
The Vista team have put together our top three techniques that we use in our training to draw out the information you need to support an employee struggling with mental health.
1. ‘Help me understand’
This is the ‘magic phrase’ in a person’s toolkit. As open as just about any question can get, it is a great way to get to the heart of an issue.
If you need to be more specific, you can also try: “Help me understand…
- what happened…
- what specifically you did…
- how you felt about…
These are all really effective questions to use when having conversations about mental health, because they allow the individual the opportunity to explain how they may be feeling, and it gives us the opportunity to actively listen which is such an important part of building trust and developing relationships.
If you find it challenging to stay in ‘open’ – try a sandwich!
2. Ask ‘are you okay’ in a different way
If you notice something is amiss, asking ‘are you okay?’ could cause shut down, with a response along the lines of ‘nothing’ or ‘I’m fine thanks’ – a bit of a conversational cul-de-sac.
To avoid this, we recommend asking this question in a different way.
Describe what you have seen or heard. Remember to stick to the facts and don’t go down the route of ‘I’ve noticed you are really grumpy at the moment’! Try something like ‘I’ve noticed you are reacting negatively at the moment, what is causing this/what is going on for you right now?/shall we grab a coffee?’.
Avoid asking ‘why?’ as it can feel confrontational – stick to our other open questions described above.
You might still get the initial ‘I’m fine’ – but persevere and give them the opportunity to open up. Grab that coffee and take the opportunity to have a general conversation – about work, about home-life, hobbies, about anything at all.
Everything still ‘fine’? Go with it. You may end the conversation not knowing what is causing a potential change in behaviour, but encouraging and facilitating a conversation regularly builds trust and is a reminder to the team that your door is open.
If it’s impacting on your organisation or your people – try using the feedback technique we cover below.
Our sister organisation, 10to3 Digital also have a great collection of videos to support managers through these difficult conversations.
3. Give great feedback
As ‘social animals’ we don’t like feedback, so if we have to give it, use the feedback model below to make the recipient more receptive to it:
- Start your feedback with what you have seen or heard someone do
- Describe the impact
- Tell them what you would like them to be doing
If, despite your first-class feedback you don’t get the information you need to move forward signal to them (with empathy) why it’s important for them to take on board your feedback, and then go back through points 1-3 above.
Understanding mental health conditions can take time. Plan to come back to the conversation and continue to offer support and provide an opportunity for a team member to open up to you.
If you would like advice and support in managing conversations about mental health, or any of the issues we cover here, don’t hesitate to contact the Vista team.