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Important Conversations

By Tasha Broomhall

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. 

Nelson Mandela

Are you concerned about someone in your workplace? Do they seem to be regularly overwhelmed? Do they react intensely to constructive feedback? Do they seem more sensitive than usual?

Many people can easily identify that they have noticed changes in someone, but they often don’t know how to approach the person. They don’t want to intrude; yet they do want to offer support. They don’t want to say the wrong thing; but they don’t want to say nothing. If this is you, then why not aim this month to have open and respectful conversations with the people you’re concerned about.

One of the most important conversations you can have with a person is about how they are faring in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. The following advice will guide you in how best to approach this sensitive topic in the workplace.


There are three components to sensitively approaching the person concerned to have a conversation:

  1. Choose a time when you can dedicate your full attention to the person. Neither of you should feel rushed, nor be likely to be interrupted.
  2. The place is also a factor in that you should both feel safe and private. This is particularly important in the workplace or anywhere that the person may be sensitive about disclosing their issues to others.
  3. The language that you use is critical. You have the best chance of engaging positively with the person if your language is respectful and non-judgemental.


Before you have the conversation with the person consider whether your observations and concerns are related to their work performance or to their personal wellbeing. Do you have a leadership role with the person, or not? This will determine the way you frame the conversation – it’s boundaries and likely outcomes.

If your issue is of personal concern only, you can choose to raise your concerns with the person but be prepared not to go any further if the person does not want to discuss the issue with you.

If your observations are indicating a work performance issue and you are in a position of responsibility for this person, you will need to frame the conversation as being related to professional concern. You are providing the person with the opportunity to raise any issues that may have affected their work performance, and if they do so then you will discuss possible adjustments with them. However if they choose not to discuss any contributing issues (such as personal or mental health problems) then you will still need to deal with the performance issues.

STEP 2.    “I’VE NOTICED …” 
The next step is to describe what you have noticed that has led to your concerns. Keep your observations objective and measurable – you should not be attempting to give them a diagnosis or be stating your personal judgements and opinions. Outline the observed change in their behaviour or simply say: “I’ve noticed…”. Try to only focus on their behaviour, and not your interpretation of what this behaviour might mean.

Asking them “Have you noticed…?” or “Is that true for you?” or ‘Is there something going on with that?”, gives them an opportunity to connect with you if they choose to do so. It helps them to clarify if you are on the right track or if there is some other reason for their behavioural changes.

STEP 4.    “ZIP IT!”  
The final step in the process involves you not saying anything: ‘Zip It!’ Many people find this the most difficult stage, but it is vital that you let the person find, organise and relay their thoughts to you, if they choose to do so. You sometimes need to be silent for twice as long as you think is socially appropriate, to allow the person time to catch up with their thoughts, and to decide what they are willing and comfortable to disclose in this situation.


As a concerned person, where can you help someone to access support?

  • Your organisations EAP provider
  • GP (an excellent first ‘port of call’. .Follow the links on the beyondblue website for recommendations
  • Psychologist (either for yourself or for the person concerned – can get referral through your GP with Medicare rebates)
  • www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
  • www.reachout.com (youth oriented)
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