This might be one of the most frequently asked questions about therapy, especially in my specialty area, working with software developers. We have all had coworkers, employees, or managers that we’re concerned about. Sometimes you know what the concern is about – they’re experiencing loss, conflict, or a job setback. If they’re opening up to you about their struggle, you have an opportunity to make sure they’re getting the support they need.
I find that there are many more cases where people are concerned for their coworker or friend because they don’t know what’s going on. They just seem less engaged than they used to be – their office door is shut more, they show up to fewer meetings than they used to, they seem less “present” than they used to be. Maybe they’re still engaged at some level, but noticeably less productive. Or perhaps you feel anxious or depressed around them! Recent research suggests there’s a part of your brain devoted to feeling the emotions of others, so your own emotions can be a great indicator of what’s happening in someone else.
It is often scary to imagine a conversation suggesting that someone get help. It is uncomfortable, and it ventures into a discussion of the “personal” that many of us are afraid to have with a coworker or casual friend. Yet, it is important. You might save a career, a marriage, or even a life by listening with empathy and having the difficult conversation where you encourage them to get some help. You might be the only person in their life who is able to see the concern and do something about it.
So what can you do? Here are 8 keys to initiating and having this conversation.
Be Genuinely Concerned
Before engaging them, develop true concern and care for them. This might be difficult: perhaps they’ve recently let you down or caused you real difficulty or inconvenience. Remember that you can still feel frustrated or angry with them, but you can suspend those feelings temporarily while you feel and express genuine concern. Instead of just looking at how they’ve hurt you, imagine what life could be like for them if this gets worse, or if they treat everybody (including themselves) like they have treated you. You’ll feel genuine care for them, and they will more likely sense it too.
Safe Place and Time
This is a personal conversation; you must treat it as such and pick both a time and place with discretion. Have an in-person conversation if at all possible, and schedule the conversation for a time and place that will be safe for both of you. Never, ever use the encouragement of seeing a professional as a form of insult, attack, or accusation: you’ll only distance them further from the help they need.
You might want to jot these down somewhere before the conversation. What have you personally experienced that makes you concerned? What emotions do you feel toward them? Turn these into ”I” statements: “I’ve experienced you as less present in meetings, not contributing as much.” “I feel worried about you when I see you being a lot less productive than usual.” Do not accuse or attack: “I feel like you need to see someone” is not a feeling, it is unhelpful advice at best, and an attack at worst. Express your genuine feelings about them and your concern, and then…
When we’re nervous about something, it’s easy to talk too much as an overcorrection to not wanting to talk at all. During this conversation, you’re going to be tempted to speak at them instead of having a two-way conversation with then. Plan to leave some space for them to hear you, process their own reactions, and respond. Failure to do so will inadvertently send them the message that you’re just there to say your part, or that you don’t care. That’s the opposite of what you want to convey.
A good time to pause is after you’ve said a few words about (a) your direct experience of them and (b) your genuine emotions about them. And then pause. Let them respond however they might, and really listen – avoid talking. Ask a clarifying question or two of what they’ve said if you’re hearing new information.
Deal With Defensiveness
Expect some resistance or defensiveness. The easiest trap to fall into during listening is to engage defensiveness. Don’t do it. Exercise some of your own self-control over both your words and body language. The conversation you’re having is uncomfortable for them as well as you, but if you begin to argue or debate the facts, you are wasting an opportunity. Listen, summarize what you’re hearing them say, and accept that their perspective might be different than yours. That’s OK. Remind yourself that you’re not here to negotiate agreement on a universal truth — you are expressing your own, genuine concern.
Make a Specific Request
I recommend making this as specific as possible, and asking it as a question, not a statement or a recommendation. “Will you commit to calling a local therapist this week and scheduling an appointment with them?” This approach works well when combined with a statement of your own needs and wants as well: “What I want is for you to make an appointment with your doctor this week to talk about your anxiety. Will you do that?”
Threats Do Not Work
If they say “no”, it is tempting to escalate the request into a threat. “If you don’t do this, then I’m going to…” Avoid this attempt to exert power or coerce them into doing what you want. Even if the threat results in immediate compliance, it is quite unlikely to bring about real change or growth. If their choices result in your needing to take action for yourself, your family, or your team, then so be it, but using the threat of consequences to manipulate change in another is rarely useful.
Sometimes people that respond the most defensively have actually taken your concern to heart. Do not give up on them just because their initial response was poor, but stay engaged, keep listening, and keep caring for them. Resist the temptation to repeat your request: it is highly unlikely that they’ve forgotten it. You have the opportunity to show them through your ongoing words and actions that you weren’t just trying to fix the problem, but that you truly care for them and their well-being. And guess what? That might be all that they really needed.
Have you helped a family member, coworker, or friend get the help they needed? What worked for you? What didn’t work? I think this page could become a great resource for many. Let’s collaborate on this together — please share your experiences in the “Leave a Reply” section!