We all ask, and get asked, that question countless times a day. Mostly we assume it’s not really meant, so the response is “fine”, or “all good”, and we move on to what we really want to talk about. How do we get beyond that, when we really want to know the answer?
It’s something I spend a lot of time training people about. The mental health first aid course equips people at all different levels of the workforce with the confidence and skills to be the “go to” people for anyone experiencing problems. I also spend time with line managers helping them talk to their teams, albeit in a less in-depth way. Training and practice definitely help, but most of it is not rocket science.
It’s important to choose a time when you and the person have the time and space to talk, in a safe environment free from distractions and colleagues who may overhear. Sit down, but not across a desk which creates a physical and emotional barrier, and be close, but not too close.
The initial question is simple: how are you? If you get the standard “fine” response, you can push back. There may be reasons why you are asking, maybe changes in behaviours, and you can say so. If the person really does not want to talk to you, then you can ask whether they would be more comfortable talking to someone else. But make it clear you are open to that conversation as and when they are.
It is important to listen: this means not talking, or at least not talking very much. The idea is to do so non-judgmentally. There are some pointers we can bear in mind:
You will hopefully get a sense of how the person is and whether they need any additional help, so you can talk about next steps. Consider the existing resources in your organisation such as HR, employee assistance programmes, counselling, mental health first aiders etc. Also think about external resources: has the person spoken to family or friends, or their GP, could they benefit from local counselling services? Your encouragement might be the very thing that helps them take that first step towards getting help. Even if it’s just to catch up again in a week or two, agree what is going to happen next, then check in.
Above all, don’t be afraid and don’t over complicate it – it is just about being human and being you, which is something we can all do if we give ourselves the chance.
Richard Martin leads byrne∙dean’s work on mental health awareness www.byrnedean.com