8 tips for talking to a struggling colleague

True story:

Lisa went into medicine with a desire to help and heal people. However, the reality of the workload and the pressure she was under made that increasingly difficult.

She was working a night shift as a surgeon. By the end of the shift, she was utterly exhausted, but she also had some patient appointments in the morning.

Her memory of the situation was that she went into the room, saw her patient, whom she’d known for ten years, and asked how she could help. The patient looked back and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it’, got up, and left.

Three days later, Lisa received an email from the patient, explaining that she had come to see her about a worrying sexual health problem, and that it had taken her several months to summon the courage to talk to her about it.

However, when Lisa walked into the room, the patient saw that her doctor was red-eyed, distracted and still had some blood on her clothing from surgery. Lisa hadn’t realised that she’d done this, but the patient said that while she was in the room, she stayed standing and didn’t take her hand off the door handle.

The patient wrote that she might try making another appointment in a few days, as it was clearly a bad time for Lisa.

This situation was one of several moments that led her to quit as a doctor, but the reason I’m telling the story is that it illustrates how not to approach a sensitive conversation with someone.

There will be times at work when one of your colleagues is upset. They might be going through a divorce, be worried about losing their job or have suffered a bereavement. Everyone has upsetting things happen to them at some point.

It can be difficult for people to know how to handle these situations. Some people feel very uncomfortable being with someone who is feeling very emotional. Few line managers receive training in how to do this skilfully.

The overall principle is to help the person who is upset to feel safe to talk about what they’re upset about. In the example above, the patient didn’t feel safe because the doctor didn’t seem to have the time, or the mental or emotional capacity to support her.

One of the main reasons people don’t feel safe to open up about what’s troubling them is fear of feeling embarrassed, ashamed or perceived as weak by their colleagues. Here are some ways you can help your colleague to feel safe to talk:

  1. Privacy

Don’t talk to them in a place where anyone else can hear; speak to them somewhere private. How you invite them to do this is also important. If you say, ‘Can I have a word?’, people often jump to the worst-case scenario: ‘I’ve messed up! I’m being fired!’

You can even make a joke it by saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.’

2. Observational, compassionate questioning

Perhaps let them know what you’ve observed that prompted you to have this conversation:

You looked upset/distracted/stressed and I wanted to check if you are OK.’

3. Giving them permission not to tell you

Some people will feel unsafe and clam up if they feel that you’re pressuring them to talk. Let them know they don’t have to tell you.

You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to. Perhaps there’s someone else you’d rather speak to? Do you want some time to yourself?’

4. Giving them space

If they do want to talk to you, sit down (unlike the doctor), give them your full attention and just listen. Be patient. Don’t interrupt, or offer advice or solutions at this point. Let them talk for as long as they need to.

5. Empathy

It can help to let the person know that you can relate to what they’re feeling, but be mindful not to switch the focus onto yourself. They need your attention to be on them at this time. You might say something like:

‘That sounds really tough/stressful/frustrating.’

‘I’ve been through something like that myself.’

It’s often not helpful to say ‘I know how that feels.’ The truth is, you actually don’t know what it feels like for them, even if you’ve been through the same situation.

6. Support

Once you’ve got to the point where you feel that you understand their situation and how they’re feeling about it, you could ask:

Is there anything I can do to help?’

You might also make some suggestions to them. Maybe they could have the rest of the day off. Perhaps they need more help on the project they’re working on.

7. Confidentiality

Let them know that whatever they’ve told you will go no further without their permission.

8. Check in on them afterwards

The next day and the next week, discreetly keep an eye on them and check in on how they are.

Conclusion

Although you can’t expect it to be a perfectly smooth and easy process, just having the intention to help them feel safe will go a long way. It will also help a lot if you already have a positive relationship with them. If you treat your colleagues with warmth, and if you’re open with them when times are hard, it will be a lot easier for you to handle.

The reason Lisa couldn’t support her patient, was that she was totally overwhelmed herself. So a big part of being there for others requires you to look after yourself: put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.

Here is a poem that offers some more guidance about listening:

Listen

when I ask you to listen to me, and you start giving me advice,

you have not done what I have asked.

when I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,

you are trampling on my feelings.

when I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems,

you have failed me (strange as that may seem).

listen — all I asked was that you listen — not talk or do, just hear me

I can “do” for myself

I am not helpless … maybe discouraged and faltering — but not helpless

when you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.

when you accept as a simple fact that I feel what I feel, no matter how irrational

then I quit trying to convince you and get down to the business of understanding what is behind the irrational feeling

and when that is clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice

Irrational feelings make sense, when we understand what’s behind them.

so please listen and just hear me

and if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn and I will listen to you.

Ralph Roughton, M.D.

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My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.