LEADING A CONVERSATION
Effective communication is easier said than done. It can be especially difficult to communicate effectively when you are busy on set and have people around and tasks that need doing. For this reason, we suggest that you only engage in a conversation about a mental health or substance abuse issue during a slower period, or before or after work, when you can give your full attention to your peer, and they can give their full attention to you. In this module, you will learn tools and strategies to have an effective conversation with a fellow crew member who is struggling with mental health or substance use.
Many of us have heard that it is good to listen with “empathy” - but what exactly does that mean? Empathy is the ability to understand a situation or set of feelings from the perspective of another. The idea is captured when we talk about “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy also describes the process used in coming to that common understanding. It is crucial to trust, cooperation, and openness. A related term is a compassion, which is when empathic feelings and thoughts include the desire to take action to help another. Sympathy is another term in this family, which can sometimes be confused with empathy. While often well-intentioned, expressing sympathy can leave the recipient feeling that others have taken pity on them, or are feeling sorry for them. This can create a sense of inferiority and disempowerment. Empathy empowers others and positions everyone on the same level.
When supporting your peers, it is valuable to take an empathetic stance instead of a sympathetic stance. To learn more about the difference between these two terms, watch this 3-minute animated video voiced by Brené Brown.
Empathetic communication is the ability to explore and reflect a peer’s feelings accurately. Sensitively communicating your understanding to a fellow crew member will help them feel seen and heard. Not only will this help nurture and sustain your relationship with your peer, it will also reduce the level of embarrassment they feel. If someone feels intimidated or embarrassed during a conversation, it is more likely that they won’t honestly share what is going on for them or ask for support.
This can happen through apathetic communication: the opposite of communicating with empathy. When a person is communicating apathetically, they are showing a lack of genuine interest, enthusiasm or concern.
Fellow crew member: “It’s hard for me to focus at work right now. I have so much going on at home. It makes me... kind of angry because normally I like my job!”
Empathetic response: “Your difficulties at home are making it tough to concentrate at work and that’s frustrating for you.”
Apathetic response: “Aww, that’s rough. Are you think about quitting your job?”
Fellow crew member: “I just don’t feel like being around anyone. I feel like when I’m around people on set, I just bum them out or burden them.”
Empathetic response: “It sounds like you’re finding it tough to interact with people on set without feeling guilty.”
Apathetic response: “Sounds like you’re not getting along with this crew anymore.”
Good communication requires good listening. On the surface, good listening may look like refraining from interrupting someone when they speak. There is much more to it. Active listening is a method of listening that requires attention and concentration. To be more than a passive listener, you must be in a mindset where you can be fully attentive to your peer. Active listening is not about waiting for your turn to speak; it’s really hearing what another person is saying and putting everything else out of your mind. Use positive body language like an open posture and soft eye contact to indicate you are listening and valuing what your peer is saying. Avoid judging prematurely, and instead, just stay curious. Another part of active listening is clarifying information if you don’t understand something the person said. It is all right to ask questions to help in your understanding of what has been said. This shows interest and gets you the facts you need. You can also try to actively remember the information your peer shared, instead of putting it out of your mind when the conversation is over.
When trying to listen well, obstacles can arise that block you from understanding your peer’s point of view. Listening obstacles usually stem from judgmental thoughts and responses which can take many forms.
Some obstacles may include:
Needing to be right: for example, “You are thinking about this the wrong way. Let me explain...”
Dismissing your peer’s needs, for example: "I’m busy.”
Giving advice: for example, “Did you try this?”
Discounting emotions or thoughts: for example, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “Don’t be sad.”
Comparing unfavorably: for example, “Lucy didn’t have any trouble when I worked with her. What’s your problem?”
It is often easier to be judgmental than to imagine yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Be aware of your own tendencies to be judgmental, your biases, beliefs, interests and fears. These may prevent you from listening with empathy. Also be mindful of your capacity to help – if you have other things on your mind, it’s okay to hold off on the conversation until you’re able to actively listen.
When trying to communicate well, open-ended questions will allow for more information gathering and make the conversation run more fluidly. They also help conversations from unfolding in an interrogative manner, which can make people feel defensive. Closed-ended questions are those that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. Open-ended questions require more elaboration than a “yes,” “no,” or simple fact.
A simple and appropriate way to ask open questions is begin with: “How …?”, “Who …?”, “What …?”, “Where …?”, “When …?” or “Tell me about…”.
How are you feeling?
Who do you talk to when you need support?
What do you think?
Tell me about what’s going on.
However, too many open-ended questions can scare a person off or result in repetition. Make sure you are asking necessary questions and not just making conversation. Listen for what your peer needs and don’t offer instant problem-solving. Try not to use “why” questions, as they can imply judgement; the phrase “What is the reason you...” is better, since it presumes motive or logic.
Now you may have a sense of the communication tools you can use to support your fellow crew members. But what happens if you find that your peers want to talk to you A LOT? Or perhaps people are starting to disclose information on topics you’re not comfortable hearing about. This is where boundaries come in.
A boundary is a anything that sets or indicates a limit. Physical boundaries are all around us – they look like walls, doors, and fences, to name a short few. Psychological, emotional, or social boundaries are not always so obvious. They can look someone turning away or sound like the word “no.” When trying to support your peers, boundaries can help you understand what is “yours” and what is “theirs.”
Imagine that when a peer chooses to share something with you, it goes on “the table.” This is an area where you can both see what has been shared. It has limited space and can only hold a certain amount of weight. Moreover, there are plenty of thoughts and feelings in your individual space and in your peer’s space that are not on the table.
Part of your job when supporting a peer is to determine what belongs on the table and when the weight on the table is getting too heavy. Some ways you can do this include:
Recognizing what you can and cannot do
Being clear about your role as a peer, rather than a supervisor or counsellor
Consulting with others when you are unsure of what to do
Offering support but not making the problem your own
Asking for time and space when you need a break.
Remember, just by offering an empathetic ear you are already going a long way in supporting your fellow crew member. If the conversation suggests your peer needs more help, it might be a good time to offer resources such as your EAP phone number. This can help keep your shared “table” manageable and connect your peer to further care.