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The Power of Both Talking and Listening

I wrote this at the weekend before yesterday’s news regarding the number of deaths in the UK due to the pandemic reaching and passing 100,000. I had been hesitant to post it because it may not come across as sufficiently business focussed, but now feel that it may be even more relevant to those who are struggling with mental health issues and also bereavement. I hope so………

As we work our way through yet another lockdown, it is increasingly apparent that mental health and wellbeing will be affected significantly, and that anyone involved in people management will need to develop and use all the skills that they can to ensure that they monitor, manage and support anyone who shows signs of mental ill health or who raises the subject.

One simple method that we can all use to make steps in that direction is to develop the habit of checking in with all our colleagues, whether they be employees, peers or members of a team that we manage.  A simple ‘how are you doing?’ may be all it takes, but some people may need more prompting, they may need to develop trust in you, or need to develop confidence in themselves to be able to talk about what they are experiencing.

On a personal note, it took me several years of volunteering with the Samaritans to really understand the value of talking to someone about what you may have gone through or may be going through.  A potted personal history is that I am an only child and my parents died six years apart when I was in my 20s in the 1980s.  Back in those days, there was little support offered (well, no support actually offered, if truth be known), or indeed available, for adults. Also, back then, it was assumed that you would just get on with it, so I did.  It was only in 2016, attending the 80th birthday of the mother of one of my closest friends, that I had a bit of a turn, and sought some help through a counsellor.  It seemed bizarre that 30 years after my mother died, I should be weeping about grief, and its impact, to a total stranger.  But oddly, it was easier to talk to a stranger than friends who had known me for years – known me as the coper, the one to whom others go when they need support, the one who just gets on with it……   I also cannot tell you how valuable the support of my fellow Samaritans volunteers was in terms of listening, accepting, not judging or telling me how I should feel, or how I would feel, or how they understood what I was going through.  The value simply of having someone there, who empathises, listens, prompts you to talk at your own pace, and leaves it open for you to talk when you want to, again, at some point or any point in the future, is immeasurable.

The situation reoccurred when, in May 2019, I passed the age that my mother had been when she died.  I descended into some kind of recurring downward spiral from which I’d recuperate or rise up, only to go down once more with odd triggers – a TV programme, a memory, a book, an activity.  It’s strange but only when I was convinced of my own forthcoming demise over the New Year period, did I feel I was beginning to come to terms with all this.  I am trying to develop the habit of focussing on the simple things in life that I can enjoy at the moment - reading, music, history, looking out over the forest, my cats, and talking to my friends. 

I’m by no means suggesting that we all have to be Samaritans or have Samaritans training or even call the Samaritans. We all have the capacity to talk and to listen.  Whether you structure it by having a list of friends or colleagues and getting in touch with them alternately, or whether you do it randomly when you think of someone. It makes sense to do it regularly though. There are so many means of communicating these days, it has never been easier to reach out.

Some people will want to talk – anyone delivering a parcel to my house practically runs away now! – and some people will be more reticent.  Some people are good at listening naturally and some people can learn.  Give people time, understand the power of silence – you don’t need to fill the gaps all the time, people who are not used to talking may need time to gather their thoughts, to think about how to articulate what they want to say.

And, it’s not an interview. You don’t need to keep asking questions – whether they be open or closed. You can simply acknowledge what is said by going ‘aha’ or ‘hmmm’; or use simple phrases like ‘go on’ and ‘tell me more…’. 

Don’t expect to have an hour’s conversation or an in-depth discussion from the outset. It may initially be a sentence, or a few minutes.  People need to grow comfortable with expressing themselves and they need to develop trust in you if they don’t already have it.

If you are someone’s manager, they may be wondering what you might do with any information they give you, or what you may think if they reveal what they may consider to be vulnerabilities.  Stress the fact that you share some of their feelings – albeit you don’t ‘know how they feel’. As much as the phrase, ‘we’re all in this together’ is being overused, it is the case that we are all going through this bizarre situation at the same time and can support each other. 

A simple offer of help or a chat, if someone wishes, will be valued.  Don’t be put off if you are apparently pushed away.  Keep at it.  It will reap rewards and help those around you.

On which note, I’m tremendously pleased that one of my clients has just been awarded Investors in People silver status (up from bronze), despite the lockdowns and a redundancy programme in the past year.  Their employees praised the way that the company had handled each of these situations. A large part of this success was due to well-considered, well-intentioned and consistent communication – across, up and down within the company.

Whether the rewards come in such a specific form, or more simply mean that you have a happier, mentally healthier, more engaged workforce, making a concerted effort to communicate – both talking and listening – will help everyone concerned.  Remember, it’s never too late to learn!