Think about how often you communicate with others – not just chit chat, but the thousands of words you put out there every day. Casual conversations in elevators, text messages to friends, emails to colleagues, tweets, status updates, meetings and more. It’s a lot. Listening, however, often doesn’t come so easily, but it can quite literally be a life-saving skill.
This year, European Mental Health Week is encouraging everyone to ‘Speak up for mental health’ and, yes, it’s asking people to talk, campaign, share experiences, stories and resources. Most importantly, it helps us all to understand that it is ok to not be ok and empowers everyone to speak out when they need help. And when we do? That’s when listening becomes powerful.
Neslihan Laidler works in Customer Experience Management for Canon EMEA, but she is also a Mental Health First Aider. This means that she is one of a network of people at Canon who are trained to act as a completely confidential first point of contact for colleagues who are experiencing a mental health issues or emotional distress. She is on hand to help colleagues gain access to many different types of support but is also there to listen. “It’s real listening,” she says “because, unlike a general conversation with a friend or colleague, I can’t guess what they are going to say next, or what is happening in their life.”
“When you have a regular conversation with a friend, you both share your experiences,” she explains. “As a Mental Health First Aider, I step back, listen to them and try to understand what their needs and expectations are.” This is often called ‘active listening’ and it’s an open, non-judgemental way of allowing an important conversation to happen.
The Samaritans use the acronym ‘SHUSH’ as a helpful way to remember the techniques involved in active listening:
Show you care: As Neslihan says above, it’s about taking a step back and giving your full attention to the person who has reached out to talk to you. Remove any distractions (put your phone on mute, find a quiet area to sit in) and make the other person your focus. Smile, maintain comfortable eye contact and make sure your body language is open, so keep your arms uncrossed and turn towards them. These are quietly important ways make the other person feel valued and listened to.
Have patience: It may take time and several attempts before a person is ready to open up. Remember that speaking about mental health can be really difficult, so to build that bond of trust, be gentle, calm, don’t rush them. Don’t interrupt or finish their sentences and as you listen, focus on understanding what the other person is saying, not how you will respond.
Use open questions: Yes or no answers can often shut down conversations and make them difficult. Which can be a problem when you’re hoping to understand and support someone who is already taking the incredibly brave step of talking about their mental health. Make it easy for them by asking questions that encourage more detailed responses. Use ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ questions and you’ll find that the conversation feels more open and natural.
Say it back: Mirror their words. Don’t give your opinion or offer advice. Instead, summarise what you’ve heard. This might sound like, “I’m hearing that you’re feeling really anxious right now” or “So, what you’re saying is that you’re feeling extremely anxious.” Effectively, you’re paraphrasing what they’ve said, and this is actually a really good way to show them that you have understood and that what they have said is valid.
Have courage: Don’t be put off by a negative response and, most importantly, don’t feel you have to fill a silence. It’s all about giving the other person an uninterrupted flow, so you don’t even need to use the kind of verbal prompts that often pepper our conversations, such as “I see…” and “uhuh” or “ah”. It can be hard to do this, but remember that you are creating space for the other person to speak.
When you have a regular conversation with a friend, you both share your experiences. As a Mental Health First Aider, I step back
What to do next
If you fear that the person you are speaking to is in immediate danger, then it’s important to act quickly and call the emergency services. Otherwise, Neslihan and her fellow Mental Health First Aiders allow themselves to be guided by the needs and wants of the other person. “I ask them to let me know how they feel, and would they like to talk again?” Where required, they can guide their colleagues to places of further support or act as a ‘bridge’ between them and HR or their manager. “But,” she stresses, “I will not take any action without asking for their permission.” Neslihan views her role as someone who builds relationships and helps others. “You have to make sure they know that you are continually there to support them,” she says. “If a friend comes to you with an issue, you listen and you try to help. The next day you don’t forget it – you ask, ‘how are you feeling today?’.
We know how difficult starting these conversations can be, so show your friends, family and colleagues that you are open to talking by literally wearing a heart on your sleeve. We’ve partnered with artists Ricardo Cavolo and Agathe Sorlet to create six printable heart designs, which you can download for free and use to personalise your clothing and open up conversations.