Picture this: you’re in the middle of a busy day at work. On your coffee break, your co-worker finds you in the hallways and says, “Hey, do you have a minute?”
They don’t want to go over that next meeting, or get your thoughts on their latest proposal. Instead, they let you know they’re having a really hard time. They’re struggling to function at work. Their relationships are suffering and they want to talk about it—with you.
Do you know what to do?
In our post-pandemic world, people are becoming more comfortable talking about their experiences with mental health disorders like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which together affect around one in four Canadian adults today. Authentic and honest conversations can help to reduce stigma and create closer connections between loved ones. Sometimes though, it can be difficult to know how to provide the needed support.
As a social worker, I spend my days supporting many people who are having a tough time. Here, then, are a set of tools you can use to have effective heart-to-heart conversations with the people who would most benefit from them.
Tip #1: Provide them with your full attention.
To create a safe space, close your office door or find a quiet place where you can talk without being interrupted. Don’t just turn your phone over or move it away from you—put it away, in a drawer or purse, so you won’t be tempted to check it if it buzzes or lights up.
If you don’t have the time or the right mindset to talk, be honest. Tell your colleague or friend that you want to give them the time and attention they need, but you can’t do it right now. Then inquire whether perhaps another time would work for them. You won’t seem insensitive if you are authentic.
Tip #2: Show them you’re listening
Make it clear that the person you’re speaking with is important to you. You can demonstrate this by the way you sit or stand. Make eye contact. Lean forward. Remove any barriers between the two of you by uncrossing your arms and your legs and leaning in to show you are interested.
Ask questions to show that you really want to understand the full story. One easy way to do that is to mirror what they say to you. Consider saying, “Do I have that right?” or, “Is that what you mean?” Keep discussion of your own experiences to a minimum. This conversation is about them, and their issues—not yours.
Tip #3: Know the difference between empathy and sympathy
Empathy is the ability to understand what someone is going through, while sympathy is feeling pity or sadness for their hardships. “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection,” says University of Houston professor, podcaster and bestselling author Dr. Brené Brown in her talk,”The Power of Vulnerability.”
To be fully empathetic to your conversation partner’s experience, park your assumptions and judgements at the door and communicate to them that you recognize their emotion, and want to understand what they’re going through. Putting yourself in their shoes will help you better understand their struggle.
For a great resource on the difference between empathy and sympathy, check out this short video: Brené Brown on Empathy.
Tip #4: Take care of yourself afterward
It can be difficult to get on with the rest of your day when somebody you care about is hurting. After your heart-to-heart is over, you might feel sad—or angry. You also might struggle to move on from that conversation. It’s important to separate yourself from the other person and remember that the issues are happening in someone else’s life, not yours.
Hearing about your conversation partner’s troubles may have triggered your fight or flight response. Your mind and body are connected, so focus on your breathing to calm yourself down. Deep breathing can help slow down your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and bring you back to the present.
Looking for more resources?
Sometimes mental health issues require more than just talking with a friend or colleague. If someone you know is experiencing an emergency or mental health crisis, here are some resources to help:
If you’d like to talk to someone, consider arranging a conversation with a Medcan professional by contacting email@example.com.