Here in my neck of the woods – southern New Brunswick, Canada – the past few weeks have been a real rollercoaster. Prior to the holiday season my province had been faring exceptionally well as far as the containment of COVID-19, with very cases and relatively relaxed government-mandated restrictions. We were enjoying life in the “yellow phase” with the ability to eat at restaurants and interact socially with our “Steady20” – twenty close social contacts identified as part of your regular circle. Within a period of a few short weeks, case numbers surged dramatically and we regressed to the more restrictive “orange phase”. As of midnight last night, half of New Brunswick is now back in the “red”, just one notch off from the state of total lockdown all Canadians recall from the beginning of the global pandemic. Everyone is on edge. Despite innumerable predictions, social media debates about the million different possible scenarios that could play out in the coming weeks and the “what ifs” running on a loop in the minds of just about every New Brunswicker, nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
If you’re leading a team right now, you’re in the front cart on the rollercoaster, trying to stay on your feet while staring fearlessly ahead as dips and loops and freefalls abound. At times you may feel like you’re losing your footing. At times you’re afraid for what’s coming next. How could you not be?
Some people are natural leaders. It’s certainly not to say they haven’t paid their dues and worked hard to climb up the ranks, but many possess leadership qualities inherently that have supported their journey and helped them persevere during their own challenges. Some of these qualities are major assets when leading teams… but may be a double-edged sword when it comes to effectively supporting an employee who’s struggling with their mental health.
Leaders tend to be action-oriented. If they’re presented with a problem, they’re unlikely to be found sitting around, waiting for change to magically happen. Instead, they’re taking the bull by the horns and working through how to fix what’s wrong, step by step. Their mindset is one of innovation, accepting the element of trial and error that comes with resolving most issues and not letting that deter them. Onward and upward, a leader goes back to the drawing board again and again until the problem has been fixed.
When a person encounters a bump in the road with respect to their mental health, by the time they voice it to another human being they’ve likely already chewed on the issue for countless hours in their mind. In the world of mental health problems, it’s rare that there’s a simple, concrete “resolution”. Rather, drawing on one’s stores of resilience and making one’s way toward a state of recovery is a journey – a process that takes time and patience. When someone shares with us that they’re experiencing mental health challenges it can be tempting to immediately go into “fix-it mode”. As a leader diving headlong into exploring solutions is almost always a good thing… almost always. More often than not, in a sensitive situation like this, what that person needs is not someone to fix all of their problems; it’s not necessarily someone who can give inspiring words of wisdom; it’s not even someone who can say, “I’ve been through the same situation”. The best tool we have at our disposal to make that person feel well supported is an open ear.
Like any skillset, being a great listener takes practice. Most of us aren’t born knowing how to do it. You may find that when exercising your listening skills your own judgments and needs creep in from time to time. For example, a beat of silence in conversation might prompt you to jump in and come up with something to say simply to avoid feeling awkward. You might find yourself thinking, Well if they’re struggling, why don’t they just [insert any number of what WE think are simple solutions to the person’s complex problems]? You might have a hard time holding back from cutting the person off to offer pieces of advice you think might be helpful. If you’re feeling stressed yourself you may find your mind wandering from time to time. Acknowledge these hurdles and embrace the opportunity to learn from them. Flagging one’s own unhelpful tendencies is the first step to deepening and strengthening your skills as an effective listener.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s a skill that has to be honed. Being a thoughtful, effective listener is a major asset to any leader’s toolbox, and you never know when you might need to use these strategies. My challenge to you this week is to become more conscious of how you listen – what do you do well, what could you stand to work on – when chatting with a friend. Part two of the challenge is to share your experience in the Comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.