Have you ever told someone about a problem you are having, or shared about a difficult experience, and they jump in and tell you exactly what you should do to fix it?
Maybe they lecture you about how you should look for the good in the negativity? How does that make you feel? Unheard? Unimportant? Stupid? Because surely if it was as simple as clicking your fingers and applying their solution, or reframing it as they suggest, then you would’ve already figured that out yourself, right?
When a friend, colleague or loved one shares a problem with us, many of us jump in with solutions or look for silver linings. Hearing someone’s bad news and seeing their reaction may feel distressing and uncomfortable. We want to reassure them. It’s tempting to want to make them feel better about the situation so we might try to rush them to a resolution; we want to tell them it’ll be ok; that this is an opportunity in disguise.
This can risk the person not feeling heard; their reaction not being validated. In doing so, we risk disconnecting with them at a time when they may need our support the most. Before opportunities can be seen to arise out of a challenging situation, there are many emotions to be processed, possibly; grief, anxiety, panic, worry, or distress.
If a person does share information with us about what they’re experiencing, how we listen and offer support is critical.
To help support someone, instead of glossing over their emotional reaction or rushing them towards feeling positive, this simple four-step process can help us to communicate more effectively:
We need to acknowledge that their reaction (fear, sadness, rejection, etc.) is real for them. Acknowledge that their reaction is true and valid. Hear it. Don’t try to tell them they’re over-reacting or that it’s not that bad. You can’t control how someone else feels.
Express empathy for their feelings. Tell them you are sorry for their distress; or sorry that they are sad; that you are sorry they are feeling overwhelmed. You are not telling them they are right or wrong for how they feel, simply empathising that how they feel is real for them and therefore important.
Allow them time to explore the options which suit them. Encourage them not to make rash decisions straight away however some pragmatics might be worth considering. Some people will need support with the pragmatics of what to do immediately. When they are ready to explore their options for moving forward, hold that space with them and discuss a range of possibilities. Consider the pros and cons of each option. If they are struggling to identify any for themselves, consider offering three options you can identify and see what, if anything, resonates for them.
Plan for action
When they are ready to test some of the options, plan for action with them. They may or may not need your support with this. Engage as appropriate for the boundaries of your relationship, respecting their decisions. This approach is about being respectful and acknowledging the individual; allowing them to go through the emotions they are feeling and to work through their options in their own time and way, whilst offering support where you can. Our goal is to connect with people and connect them with supports.
When we listen to people our goal is to listen and validate that what they’re experiencing is real for them, and to do with them, not do to them.
What to do next?
If the employee does open up and talk to you about what is happening with their mental health, your goal ought not be to counsel them or offer advice of what you think they need to do. Your goal needs to be to connect with them, show compassion and empathy, and guide them towards support. Asking the employee the following questions may help you with this:
- Does anyone else know how you are feeling?
- Are you currently getting any support or help with this?
- Have you thought of what might be helpful for you?
- Is there anything that you can think of that I can do to help?
Your role is to engage with the employee, support them to make reasonable adjustments within the workplace and to seek other supports as necessary. Your role is not to provide all of that support yourself. You need to confidently set clear boundaries around the support you can provide, and encourage them to seek help from internal services and external supports as required. If you provide the names and contact details of these services they are more likely to engage with them, so do so with confidence.
For example, if you have your EAP’s details in your mobile phone you can then very easily provide the phone number to the employee. By having the number in your phone at the ready this way, it can serve to validate the EAP as a valuable service in the employee’s mind.