I am often asked what the best approach is to begin a conversation with someone I am concerned about. Maybe I have noticed a change in their behaviour. Perhaps they are absent from meetings or social or sporting gatherings. I may have noticed when I am with them, they are not present and seem distracted. These could be signs that my friend or colleague is struggling. The fact I am aware of these changes in behaviour means I can then “check in” with them and ask them how they are doing. There are many ways of approaching someone and asking how they are, so let’s looks at some tips to help you start a conversation with someone you are concerned about.
Sometimes, all someone needs is to be listened to.
If you notice someone behaving differently or struggling in some way, it’s a good idea to see if there’s anything you can do to help. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing. We can often feel a little apprehensive before starting a conversation. Be courageous and start by simply asking ‘How are you going?’ or ‘What’s been happening?’ Showing care and empathy will help the person relax and feel comfortable sharing. Sometimes, all someone needs is to be listened to - it can be a big help. Listening is very powerful and will show the person you care.
Becoming a good active listener takes practice. But what does it really mean?
Genuine intent and active listening
Active listening means giving your full attention to the person speaking. It means having a genuine intent to hear that person’s story. Put your phone away and focus on what they’re saying, rather than thinking about what you’ll say next. Listening becomes all about the person speaking, their story, their sharing, their challenges. The focus is on them and not how their behaviour has impacted you.
How to start
There’s no perfect way to start a conversation – approach them in a way that feels comfortable. Be genuine, open and speak to them as you normally would. You don’t need to offer advice or have all the answers. It’s about listening and not about fixing them. Here are some ideas:
- ask the person how they’re feeling in general
- gently and supportively explain changes you’ve noticed in their behaviour
- encourage them to talk about what’s happening in their life – avoid questions which may only need a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Show you care by listening respectfully
- Listen without judgement – don’t interrupt with advice on how to ‘fix’ a situation, and don’t feel as though you need to solve their problems.
- Make sure you understand – repeat back to the person what they’ve told you and ask them to clear up anything you don’t understand.
- It’s okay to not know what to say – just be honest with them and let them know that you care. For example, you could say, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together’ or “I can’t image how you must be coping, but I am here to support you”.
- Sit comfortably with silence – there’s no need to fill every ‘awkward’ gap in conversation. Plus, sometimes people need time to open-up and giving them some silence may help them gain the courage to share with you.
- If you have heard about mental health support programmes or mental health help lines that have helped others, you may feel comfortable to suggest these. It’s more about informing them rather than telling them what to do.
What to avoid
There are a few things to be mindful of avoiding when actively listening to someone:
- don’t rush them – give them the time and space they need to talk with you comfortably. It may take a bit of time for them to share with you.
- don’t stigmatise – for example, don’t tell them what they’re experiencing ‘isn’t normal’. It’s normal to experience mental health challenges.
- don’t dismiss them - don’t tell them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘stop worrying’ because it’s not that simple. Saying something like ‘you’ll be fine’ isn’t very helpful.
- don’t blame them for how they’re feeling.
- don’t pretend to be an expert – you don’t need to solve their problems or have all the answers for them.
Instead, let them know you’re grateful to them for being honest with you - ‘Thank you for telling me and trusting me’ - and remind them that you’re there for them. Letting them know that their conversation is confidential can be very reassuring.
There are many mental health support programmes
Depending on the situation there are great support programmes for people who are struggling. Making yourself familiar with these programmes is a great way to learn more about mental health and then offer these to someone in need. Here are just a few:
- Anxiety and Depression Support – Beyond Blue
- Small business owners metal health coaching programme – Beyond Blue - New Access for Small Business
- Supporting yourself and small business – Beyond Blue – A Small Business Learning Course
If things sound concerning
- If you are concerned that someone you know may be thinking about or is talking about self-harm or suicide, and they are under 25 years old, call Kids Helpline on 1800 51 1800.
- Alternatively, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
- You can also offer to help the person make an appointment with a health professional or find other information.
Listening can be a huge help
Being an active listener can make a massive difference to someone who is going through a tough time. It’s okay if the other person doesn’t want to talk - respect their choice but don’t let it throw you off. It is their journey, and they may need time to open-up and share. Let them know you are there to support them whenever they need to talk. Keep reminding them that you care and are available to listen to them when they are ready. These acts of kindness go a long way in supporting those who are struggling.