Part 3: How to have a conversation about mental health in the workplace?
17 June 2020, Blog
How to end the conversation
So, was this a ‘blockbuster’ all in one story, or will there be more to come? Was it just the first chapter of your colleague’s book, or even a contribution to a compilation of short stories within your business? Just as a story concludes, or perhaps gives you a glimpse of what could come next, a conversation should end with a sense of understanding and context. Some conversations will come to a natural end and others may need guiding towards closure. Whether things are organically winding up or if you decide to be a bit more active in helping the process along (due to time perhaps or you feel that you have reached your aim or even competence level) here are some key tips to reach the endpoint safely, positively and with the sense of mutual benefit.
Be sure that you have heard the messages (feelings, thoughts) correctly. We often have inbuilt filters which screen and categorise messages to help us make meaning of them. However, these are not standardised and as such it is important to check that you haven’t inappropriately filtered. For example, if your colleague said to you “I can’t go on like this”, you could have several different interpretations of this statement depending on what was said beforehand or afterwards, whether it was a repeated statement at different times of the conversation, the intonation used or whether it was accompanied by humour, tears or anger. Your sense of interpretation may be affected by your own stress levels, the pressure of getting it ‘right’ or the fear of getting it ‘wrong’. Remember, you are not the expert on how your colleague is feeling, they are. So, ask for clarity one more time. Say that you want to make sure you have heard them properly so that you can help to support that person in moving forward. Messages can become mixed up, contradicted and seem illogical when someone is upset, distressed, angry or sad. Your colleague may have jumped from one thing to another or moved quickly through their story making it difficult to keep up, you may have found it awkward to break their monologue with questions. The ending part of the conversation is where you can bring these threads together to make sense of what has been said.
Summarising is a core skill for ending conversations well. This reiterates the point about seeking clarity, but it also pulls together the messages you have imparted. This might include repeating that you’re thankful you’ve been able to have such a detailed/useful/personal conversation and acknowledge that you can see it’s been hard/upsetting/unsettling for them. If you have made notes as you’ve gone along, make sure that these are an accurate reflection and add to/delete information as necessary. Again, ensure that you comply with GDPR policies in terms of confidentiality, storage and sharing of that information, and offer your colleague the opportunity of having a clean copy as soon as possible. Key points may have been scattered through the conversation and this makes it harder to remember everything. It is usually helpful however to acknowledge the feelings first and the actions second. This is because a sensitive conversation has so much tied up within it about what that person thinks of themselves, how they feel about other people’s views of them, deep seated emotions such as fear, shame or embarrassment and their personal views about the world in which they live. Once these things have been recognised and the person feels validated, talking about the actions and how they ‘fit’ with the feelings will be easier.
3. Create an action plan.
Pull together your actions into a plan. This is a collaborative exercise based on the previous point and one which gives each person an element of control. Some points may be really obvious, but others might need a bit of negotiation particularly if there are guidelines, policies, or procedures for the business to follow. Ensure that you agree how those actions are going to look in practice, what support needs to be in place for them to be achievable and what the expected outcomes might be. Don’t be too overpowering or set expectations which are clearly not manageable at that time. Offer a time framework and perhaps short reviews along the way with positive acknowledgement that together you can achieve what you need to. Incorporate any other expertise within the business that you have access to, or, if funds allow, buy in resources to help support the process. This shows commitment and attention to detail which makes people feel valued and part of the team.
4. Think laterally.
What else is there to help this process? Who else might be able to support this colleague? Is your colleague needing something extra or perhaps a break from work? When we work with people in a team our instincts are to act as a pack. In an ideal scenario, we should all follow the same rules, everything is fair and equal and most importantly no-one gets preferential treatment from the boss. However, teams often do not work this way and both large and small businesses alike experience ‘team toxicity’ at varying times. For argument’s sake, add in a global pandemic which induces stressful, life changing thoughts, feelings and behaviours, people being furloughed, some being made redundant or watching their livelihoods collapse, having to say goodbye to loved ones in the most traumatic way or even suffering the uncertainty of living because of being infected themselves, and you can see that what was our normal can’t be resurrected. We are creatures of habit in many ways, and our carefully constructed, safe and reassuring reality is essential to our wellbeing.
However, any trauma, not just the current pandemic, will create an unknown for each and every one of us, and as such, we must begin to recreate a new normal and connection with our reconstructed reality. The workplace therefore has a responsibility to recognise the impact on it’s workforce and be prepared to support reintegration as smoothly and reasonably as possible. So, in the context of lateral thinking in relation to the sensitive conversation, be open-minded, creative, and responsive to the need. This is your opportunity to treat your team members as individuals, explain why and how some might need ‘more’ than others at this time and that’s OK, one size does not fit all so to speak.
5. And finally, what about you?
How have your faired during the conversation? Remember, the conversation starts in your head first, no one else can hear or interact with it and it will be evolving all the time. It may then gather pace when you offer the appointment or meeting time to your colleague and will be at it’s most active as you prepare your space and mind to enter the unknown. It takes energy to slow your body and brain down and be receptive to someone else’s story. The words may be painful for you to hear and your emotional mind may vie for attention from your logical and reasoned mind. You may have an agenda to guide you but it takes effort to stick to this, time may drag, it may go very quickly, you may be asked questions that you find difficult to answer or you may be distracted by other thoughts or events.
Do not underestimate the toll this has on you as a person. Distressing stories that are re-told cause a risk of the listener developing ‘vicarious trauma’ which is sometimes described as ‘second-hand shock’. Perhaps one meeting with a colleague might trigger it, particularly if you have had similar experiences, but the risk increases the more you do it potentially leading to something known as ‘compassion fatigue’ or burnout. It is vital therefore, that you take good care of you throughout the process of looking after your team, be aware of the feelings and thoughts you have about the whole process, not just the words you are listening to. Simple strategies such as taking regular breaks, fresh air, relaxing breaths and drinking water will support your body and mind to maintain some kind of equilibrium. Make sure you are in a good place before taking on the responsibility of managing colleagues in this way, ask for extra training and support if you would like it and address your own work-life balance. Therapeutic conversations are no good if they benefit one person but ultimately harm the other and remember, you matter just as much as your colleague does.
Congratulations on getting to the end! We don’t always have time to construct the perfect conversation in our daily lives, but where sensitivity and achieving an aim are key factors, planning ahead and being in the moment show respectful and professional management skills. As a manager, you will be more likely to act on the information you now have and as a result have a better relationship with your colleague. As a business, you are more likely to notice wider benefits in terms of reputation (internally and externally), possibly less absenteeism and more presenteeism, more productivity and engagement and overall a team who want to make it work for everyone. If you were someone looking for a job now, the key questions to ask here are ‘would I like to work in this team, or for this business?’ and ‘will I be respected as me?’ Communication and engagement go far beyond how the business is constructed, it is about how it is managed and the experience of living within it’s culture. Are you able to answer ‘yes’ to both those questions?