When I’m delivering Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training we spend a lot of time talking about “non-judgmental listening”. About how important it is to listen to what people say. That often they will talk openly about the distress they feel, about how their mood is and even open declarations of intent to harm themselves. We teach people to act appropriately and refer onwards to professional help as a matter of urgency. However not all situations are so acute and sometimes that non-judgmental listening may have to go on for quite a while. Certainly those in HR teams find themselves helping staff over a long period of time, running the risk of compassion fatigue.
The importance of ongoing listening was on my mind when talking to a colleague recently on social media. Now I’ll admit that having a “conversation” about listening via direct message on Twitter has a certain irony about it but the debate went back and forth and we also discussed whether one can “listen” when it’s a purely electronic text exchange. We discussed what made either of us “good listeners” and thought about the space and time for reflection that a text exchange has. Also the ability to read back through the message stream and recap patterns / themes.
Often in organisations we pay lip service to listening. We are listening for a reason, to finish a yearly appraisal, to project manage an event, to represent a department at a meeting. We listen whilst waiting for the chance to jump in with what we need for closure, for our outcome.
On the flip side, working as a coach I spend a lot of my life listening with no agenda for myself. Hearing people, acknowledging them and letting them speak their truth is what it’s all about. I find that that in many sessions I discount some of what is being said and start wondering about what isn’t being said, what other space I can make for the coachee to be themselves more fully. Rather than getting stuck in to the “presenting issue” allowing this peripheral space and opportunity for reflection is what gets the coachee to the root cause of what is going for them.
How does that link back to MHFA and ongoing listening? Well I think that often we are looking to fix people. Get them back to work / functioning again. Sometimes people just need to be heard. One of the ways of recognising those having difficulty with their mental health is the notion of uncharacteristic behaviour, the voluble member of staff becoming withdrawn, changes in eating patterns or sleep perhaps. Precisely the kind of things we might miss if we only have a “performance management” conversation with them or focus on their attitude in meetings.
Sometimes the periphery is exactly where the heart of the matter is.