Listening and language: crucial tools for mental health at work conversations

Here is how to effectively listen and use language well when managing employees’ mental health

Human beings have an innate need to be understood and heard. Active listening and intentional word choice are two skills that I wish that everyone would prioritise, especially in our divided world.

In a sea of growing global social division, these skills are needed now more than ever. However, we have to start somewhere, and having conversations about mental health at work is a great place to do that.

Mental health and mental illness are deeply personal things, and we all come to the table with our own experiences, fears, perceptions, and needs.

Discussing mental health at work, while it’s happening far more frequently now, is still quite an uncomfortable prospect for many people. For anyone who hasn’t opened up about these topics at work before, it can be unnerving and scary. However, if they’re greeted by someone who is truly listening and intentional with how they respond, it can help ease some of those fears and oil the conversation machine.

However, when it comes to mental health at work conversations, active listening, intentional word choice, and being aware of the conscious or unconscious biases that we hold towards mental health and mental illness can affect how those conversations play out.

What do these terms mean?

There are a variety of types of listening. Active listening is when you truly listen. You pay close attention to what someone is saying, how their voice sounds, the language they’re using, what their body language looks like, and make sure to feedback to them on what you’ve heard to check that you’re both on the same page.

Simply put: you’re present, you hear them, and you’re engaged in nothing else other than what they’re saying.

Unconscious bias is a really interesting one. It’s the imprinted beliefs we hold about subjects, people, or topics that are so deeply baked into how we view the world that we don’t even realise that we hold those opinions.

Conversely, conscious bias (or cognitive bias) is a bias that we’re aware of, but we hold on to, perhaps based on previous negative experiences of people, topics, or concepts. The brain really doesn’t like negative experiences and often holds on tightly to them. It often takes many more positive experiences to outweigh the negative ones.

Intentionality is a great one and a personal favourite of mine. It means being deliberate and purposeful in the words you say, and the context behind them. This means creating just a few seconds of space and time between the words jumbling around in your brain and what exits your mouth.

Make sure that you’re saying exactly what you mean, and pausing to consider what that is, as opposed to letting something haphazardly slip out of your lips.

How do I start?

Just like you would learn any new skill set, this too will take time, practise, and patience. Please understand that you won’t become a pro overnight, and that’s normal and ok. I’m a trained therapist and I still make mistakes from time to time. Why? Because we’re all human and naturally imperfect.

5 ways to help develop your listening and language skills

  1. Put the phone away: Imagine that someone is opening up to you about their mental health and you keep checking your email and texts. That won’t make them feel great. Active listening means reducing distractions – and our mobile phones are exactly that – a big distraction that we’re glued to. Be present, put the tech aside, and focus on the human being in front of you.
  2. Count 1,2,3: I promise it goes by a lot faster than you think and the silence won’t be awkward. That’s all it takes to just pause, give yourself literally a second to gather your thoughts, and make sure that you’re saying what you actually mean to the person in front of you. Trust me when I say that language is powerful and the wrong word can easily derail a conversation, especially if you accidentally hit on a trigger that someone has that you weren’t aware of.
  3. Ask yourself, where did this belief I have come from?: You would be shocked how easily beliefs are sedimented into our minds and at the most random times, when we may not even realise it. If you find that you have a negative or avoidant view of mental health or mental illness, pause and ask yourself where that might have come from. Does it come from your fear of talking about it? Did you encounter people who have a mental health condition that exhibited behaviours, said things you didn’t understand, or made you uncomfortable? Remember, mental health is something we all share, and mental illness is something that one in four people around the globe experience, and I wouldn’t be surprised with the world’s trajectory if that increased to one in three or one in two in our lifetime. Mental health and mental illness are on the discussion table, make sure you have an updated view of it.
  4. Hurt people will hurt people: Have you had some experiences with people who were struggling with their mental health who may not have realised it, or chose not to manage it, and said things that hurt you? We can all admit that these experiences happen sometimes and while having mental health struggles or a mental health condition is not a choice, how someone deals with it is (provided that they have access to resources, which not everyone does). These experiences may have fuelled a cognitive bias towards mental illness or mental health struggles that you’re aware of, but you have the opportunity to shift your opinion. While those experiences may have been uncomfortable or painful, please remember that no mental health experience is exactly the same, and the people in your life now deserve to be viewed and treated as the individual they are. Check the bias, update the belief.
  5. Growth will have its peaks and troughs, and that’s ok: The last thing you want to here is to place expectations on yourself that you’re going to be a ‘perfect’ listener and free of bias. This process won’t be linear, because people aren’t linear. Over time, with practise, you will more likely trend upwards in your abilities to listen, be intentional with word choice, and keep your biases at bay (with long-term repetitive effort). But, sometimes you’ll mess up and that’s ok. What matters most is that you keep making the effort to improve and do better.

We all need to do our part

I realise it may feel like you alone can’t create an impact, but that’s simply not true. While there’s a lot you can’t control, what you can control and influence is being a good listener, being mindful of your words, and choosing to see each person for the individual they are and not what you think they represent.

Melissa Doman is an Organisational Psychologist, Author, Former Clinical Mental Health Therapist, and a Mental Health at Work Specialist.

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