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Mental health in the workplace: 12 tips for better listening

Communicating effectively with colleagues can be critical to their mental wellbeing.
Stock image of two people talking to accompany article on active listening and mental health in the workplace

This article was written by Coralie Ponsinet for Allos Australia and is republished with permission to mark World Mental Health Day 2022. It has been slightly edited to emphasize its relevance to mental health in the workplace. Find the original version here.

Have you ever had that feeling after speaking with someone that they didn’t really hear what you were trying to say? You’re not alone. On the flip-side, have you ever had a long conversation with someone and felt that you never really figured out the points they were trying to make?

As human beings, we tend to take communication for granted because we have been doing it all our lives – with our families at home, in meetings, on social media or reacting to people’s stories. 

So it may surprise you that one of the first skills a mental health therapist learns about is how to effectively communicate. According to the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, “Being able to communicate effectively is the core feature of a counsellor’s role, and it starts from the client’s very first session.”

So if you would like to learn the listening skills that therapists use to make people feel heard and understood, which can be critical to protecting mental health in the workplace, read on and practice the tips below.

Effective communication

The image below is a version of a widely used representation of how communication works:

A version of a widely used image representing how communication works to accompany article on mental health in the workplace and active listening.
Communicating effectively helps protect mental health in the workplace

The above image highlights how there are a lot of factors that can influence a conversation’s effectiveness:

  1. The context: i.e. the physical and social setting, such as any relationship between the participants.
  2. The participants and their current state of mind: whether they are aware of it or not.
  3. The medium: The message itself can be written, spoken, include scents or non-verbal cues.
  4. Channels of communication: think of all the ways you communicate with people, from phone calls, text messages to sharing videos on TikTok
  5. Rules of communication: although we’re often unaware of these, they guide our sense of what kind of messages and behaviours are acceptable in a given context or with particular people or groups
  6. Noise: this is where it gets interesting. Noise can be external (what we see, hear, smell, within the environment) and internal: what you’re thinking about, their emotions, or any anxiety or trauma.

We bring our whole selves to every conversation: our values and beliefs, expectations about the conversation, what has happened to us that day (e.g. the impact of a recent upsetting phone call). When a conversation comes up, we may be anticipating what the other person is going to say, think ahead to an important upcoming task, or judge something they say as wrong because it goes against our values.

These all play a part in the ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’ phases, and that is why a message may be interpreted very differently from how it was intended.

We bring our whole selves to every conversation: our values and beliefs, expectations about the conversation, what has happened to us that day (e.g. the impact of a recent upsetting phone call). When a conversation comes up, we may be anticipating what the other person is going to say, think ahead to an important upcoming task, or judge something they say as wrong because it goes against our values.

These all play a part in the ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’ phases, and that is why a message may be interpreted very differently from how it was intended.

12 tips to be a better listener (receiver)

Interacting with colleagues in a way that is good for mental health in the workplace starts with strong listening skills.

1) Use active listening skills

To be an active listener you need to listen carefully to what someone says and respond in ways that make the speaker feel heard and understood. You don’t have to be a counsellor or psychologist to use it, in fact, it’s a key skill everybody can and should use more often.

Active listening improves the quality of communication by giving the speaker your undivided attention. It’s a good idea to practice active listening skills in all personal, professional and social contexts. There are many benefits to active listening, including improved communication skills, greater empathy towards others, and better relationships.

An active listener means being an engaged participant in a conversation through insightful questions and comments. It involves reflecting back on what you hear to show that you have been paying attention as well as helping you to clarify your understanding. These are the three key elements of active listening.

– Use encouraging phrases and body language such as: ‘Uh-huh’, ‘I see’, ‘what happened then’, and nodding your head.

– Every so often paraphrase what the speaker is saying: e.g. ‘So you felt disappointed by what he said.’

– Occasionally, you might want to summarise a part of their story.

2) Listen without planning what to say next 

Often, people just want to be heard. A common complaint that people have when talking about how they’re feeling or sharing their struggles is that the other person continually interrupts them. 

To be a good listener, we should try our best not to interrupt. Instead, practice your active listening skills by encouraging them to expand on their experience and describe it more precisely. 

Don’t ask any questions until they have finished what they have to say. For someone’s voice to be heard, we have to learn to truly listen instead of waiting for our chance to talk.

3) Aim to understand what the other person conveys

An essential part of communication is understanding the true message that the other person is trying to convey. A therapist will pay close attention, not only to what is being said but also reading between the lines.

4) Reflect before replying

Are you replying for the sake of saying something or because you have something to bring to the conversation? If you’re not sure, a good idea is to wait three seconds before responding. In that time, consider the following questions. 

– Why am I responding? Am I responding because silence makes me feel uncomfortable? Do I want something from them? Am I trying to convince them of my point of view?

5) Observe with all your senses

A key to being a good observer (or therapist) is to be present and look for nonverbal cues. Some cues are easier to observe than others. We can see slumped posture and tears, but it’s also helpful to pick up on subtler clues such as fidgeting, avoidance of eye contact, monotone speech or racing words. We can also observe people’s reactions in different situations. Ultimately, we should be looking for deviations from the norm. Therefore, observing people over time will tell you more about them than just observing one moment.

6) Put aside assumptions you may have

It’s natural to make incorrect assumptions about other people. We may assume that they are confident and outgoing when in fact, they are introverted. We can also take their responses at face value and assume they are fine when they’re not, or conversely, assume there’s something wrong when in actual fact, they’re okay. For this reason, a therapist will ask caring and curious clarification questions instead of relying on assumptions. Also, be prepared for the chance that they won’t give you a straight answer or an answer at all. That’s okay too; maybe they’re not ready to share that information with you as is their right.  

7) Don’t be so judgmental

We have all been in that situation where a friend or family member shares something with us in confidence. When someone shares their insecurities and deepest thoughts, they hope we take their words seriously and respect the privacy they were so generous enough to share.

In these moments, it is essential to be compassionate and non-judgmental. Remember, opening up takes courage and vulnerability, so the moment we criticise is when they become defensive or shut down.  

Suspending judgment can be a challenge, especially if it’s on a topic that we care about deeply. However, the secret to being a good support for people is to remember that usually, people don’t want you to fix their problems for them. Instead, they want to unburden themselves of their thoughts and feelings. Your job, therefore, is to provide a safe space for that to happen and hopefully help them make sense of their situation. 

8) Be aware of your own mental state and possible bias

When we think about what it means to be aware of your own mental state and biases, it means to be conscious of your feelings, thoughts and values when interacting with another person. It also requires you to recognise how your feelings and thoughts can affect how you communicate, either positively or negatively.

Being aware of these things helps us to become better listeners and better people. That is because being aware is essentially about being mindful and living in the present moment.

9) Only offer advice if it is appropriate to do so

When someone shares a problem in their life with you, the natural instinct is to help by advising them on how to fix the problem. However, this rarely works; in fact, it typically has the opposite effect. The reason for this is that people are usually aware of the possible solutions. Therefore, your advice can sound patronising or dismissive to them. 

Secondly, if they do decide to take your recommended course of action, they don’t receive the full benefit of overcoming the challenge through their own efforts. In short, it’s disempowering and can perpetuate feelings of helplessness. 

Lastly, it’s all too easy to impose your values onto the situation. For example, there may be cultural, religious, or relationship considerations that you have no genuine experience of. In this scenario, your advice has the potential to come across as ignorant and inconsiderate. 

Remember, it’s their life, not yours, so make the conversation about them, and do not try to impose your values or convince them to do what you would in the situation.

10) Clarify if anything is unclear

Asking for clarification is a great way to show you’re listening as well as help you gain a clearer understanding of their situation. However, it also helps the sender because by encouraging them to articulate their experience more clearly, they also have an opportunity to make sense of their thoughts and feelings and see potential ways forward. 

11) Ask better questions

While listening is key, you will need to ask questions. While some people say there are no bad questions, the reality is some questions are better than others. Therefore, it is important to ask the right questions that will generate the most valuable answers.

A therapist will use open questions to invite the sender to elaborate on the situation and enhance sense-making, whereas asking Yes/No questions tend to limit expression. One open question to avoid, however, is asking ‘Why’. This often prompts the sender to defend their choices and can feel accusatory. 

12) Offer empathy not sympathy

In other words, people don’t want you to feel bad for them, instead they want you to ‘get’ where they’re coming from. The first step in developing empathy is to try and put yourself in someone else’s position and feel what they feel. This is why a good therapist will spend plenty of time making sure they get a clear picture of their client’s situation. The second step is understanding their feelings and acknowledging them.

Stock image of two people talking to accompany article on active listening effective communication and mental health in the workplace.
Protecting mental health in the workplace starts with good listening

8 tips to be a better communicator (sender)

Effective communication can be essential to maintaining good mental health in the workplace.

1) Minimise physical distractions to focus entirely on the speaker

Phones, computers, and background noise can all interfere with genuine communication. Additionally, your own busy mind can pull you away from being fully present with the other person. Therefore, it’s best to put away the screens, find a quiet place and centre your own mind. This isn’t always achievable in the moment, but every little bit helps. 

2) Match the communication styles to minimise misunderstanding

When a therapist speaks with a client, they want to ensure that their communication style is in line with their client. This is commonly referred to as mirroring. 

Mirroring your communication style with the person you are talking to is something most people don’t consciously think about. However, it’s an extremely important skill in building a therapeutic relationship as any therapist will tell you. Mirroring encompasses everything from body language and tone of voice down to what topics you choose and how you present them. It’s all about matching up the behaviour patterns so that each person feels like they’re collaborating as equals.

In all cases take time to review your own communication style before jumping into a discussion with someone else and be ready and willing to adapt it accordingly.

3) Be mindful of the other person’s culture: their rules of communication may vary significantly from what you are used to

The best way to break down barriers of communication is to learn about the other person’s culture. You are not only seeking to understand their culture but also how they perceive your own.

Understanding cultural differences and how others see your own culture will go a long way in helping you avoid misunderstandings.

4) Avoid the use of slang or idioms that foreigners may not be familiar with

Slang and idioms are often used in a language to make it more expressive. Sometimes, they may seem like the best way to express an idea. However, it’s important to always consider your audience because they are usually highly culturally specific, and it’s easy to confuse or unintentionally cause offence.

5) Remember that information is not communication: just because you present facts does not mean the person will “get” what you are saying

It is often not enough to simply provide data and facts for someone – if they don’t understand what’s being communicated to them, then they won’t be able to take any action on that information. Additionally, for many people, data alone is not compelling. Instead, they’re driven by values and are compelled by stories, so first, try to understand which values are important to them and share stories that speak to those values. 

6) Pay attention to signs which may indicate the receiver is not able to listen to you

Sometimes this can be due to external noise and distractions, or perhaps they have physiological listening difficulties. However, it can also be due to ‘internal noise’; perhaps they’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, maybe they’re too tired, maybe they’ve got an important meeting coming up. It could also be an issue of accent or language comprehension. The more you know about the other person, the better you will be able to detect the issue. And, of course, the easiest way to find what’s interfering with listening is to ask. 

7) Start conversations with chit-chat

A therapist will almost always start a conversation with small talk to get a sense of the other person’s mood and whether it’s a good moment to go deeper. In order to make them feel more comfortable, be sure that you find something that they are interested in and ask questions relating to it. 

8) Written communications: Be aware of what’s not included

The written word can be misconstrued or read without the right tone, and the tone in a person’s voice can make a big difference in what they want to say. Certain tones are used when people want to sound angry, scared, frustrated, etc.

Tone is also important because it conveys sincerity and/or humor.

Communicating with the tone you intend to use is very important for good interpersonal dialogue, yet it’s hard to do when writing because you don’t have vocal cues. Emojis are useful in this scenario and are more commonly accepted; however, the best approach is to avoid writing anything that infers meaning – keep it clear and straightforward. Otherwise, pick up the phone. 

Two principles to take away in any conversation:

  • Your behaviour can influence how something you say is received, even among people who are very close to you and know your intentions: 
  • You can’t take a message back: words can be potent weapons. If sending a message that may offend someone, read it and wait until the following day before you press send.

If you enjoyed reading this article on active listening and effective communictation, and their importance to mental health in the workplace, check out the other articles in our guest post section. (Editor’s note: this is the first guest post we have published, but more will be coming soon.)

At Serviap Global, we assist clients in dozens of countries across six continents, hiring staff on their behalf via our international PEO / EOR services, or assisting with recruitment for direct hires through our global talent acquisition services.

Contact us today to find out more about how we can assist you.

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