It’s only talking

Richard Martin




I have been running a lot of training sessions recently on mental health awareness. With senior people in particular, the aim is to help them understand the meaning and impact of mental health, how to recognise potential problems and to empower them to walk towards the issue.

At its heart, like so much of the work we do in workplaces, this is about having conversations. It is about spending time with another person and listening, actually listening to what they are saying – making sure that I hear what they are saying, and not what I would like them to say or what is easiest for me to hear, and making it clear that I am not just there for them to tell me what they think I want to hear.

In a recent session – they happened to be largely lawyers – I was struck by the obvious nervousness around having a conversation with a team member about their wellbeing – about how they were feeling. There was a sense that to enquire about this might imply a negative suspicion on the manager’s part that the individual was struggling to cope. In addition there was cynicism in that no-one would believe that manager actually gave a damn.

The role of a line manager (whatever other hats they may have as well) is to marshal the human resources at his/her disposal and to enable them to contribute as effectively as possible to the overall goals of the organisation. That has to involve conversations right? If you manage a machine then you (’re meant to) spend time checking it over, looking for wear and tear, pressure points etc. and (at the very least) you take note of funny noises and if it is behaving in an odd way you try to figure out why. With people you just need to do the same thing, and that happens through conversation surely?

So what is it that is getting in the way? For some people I get it that it just does not occur to them that this is part of their role. They need to be helped to understand this. In general though I think there is a fear involved of connecting with someone on anything other than a superficial level. But a fear of what?

There is a trust issue here, and one that exists on many levels. Does the organisation trust the line manager to have the conversation? Does the line manager trust him/herself to have the conversation? Most importantly of course, does the individual trust the line manager to listen with respect, without judgment, with sensitivity and with appropriate concern.

Put another way, is the manager going to connect with me on a human level – whatever our respective levels of seniority and what ever differences exist between us, can we connect on that human, personal level. And that’s about the line manager being authentic. We are all humans; we do all care about our fellow humans (if someone doesn’t then they really should not be a line manager) and we don’t have to leave that humanity behind when we enter the work place. Have the confidence to be your whole self.

Building the trust, demonstrating authenticity, takes practice and time – the trust comes from what you do and are seen to do, and not from an exhortation to “trust me”.

We know that to engage any employee we need to connect with them so (at the very least) they understand what is expected of them and why. We also know that conversation, human connection, is good for the wellbeing of both parties – it is one of the five ways to wellbeing from the New Economics Foundation; hardly rocket science when you take time to reflect on the positive feelings we get from social interaction. My lived experience tells me strongly that when you are not in a good place with your mental wellbeing, having someone offer you the genuine opportunity to talk about it is a great help. You don’t need to be an expert. You don’t need to offer advice or solutions – in fact you almost certainly can’t and so generally should avoid trying to do so. What you can do is listen.

And of course a manager who listens finds out how the resources for which s/he is responsible are doing, whether they need some maintenance, whether they are able to do what is required of them, which is vital information. If you learn that the person is finding it hard to cope, for example, then you will need to do something about it – that’s when a little awareness of wellbeing, and mental health issues in particular, would help – enabling you to reassure the person and point them towards help. You may need to adjust their workload or working practices as well. You won’t, however, need to (and nor should you) take ownership of, responsibility for, their problems.

We have countless conversations that go “Hi, How are you?”, “Oh fine thanks, you?”, “yeah all good, anyway, I wanted to talk to you about…..”. What would it be like if every now and then the first question, “How are you?”, was the very thing I wanted to talk about, and I really wanted you to tell me the truth? Try it! Its not scary once you’ve done it a couple of times. Its good for both of you and leads to better relationships. Its also (part of) your job.