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Can we talk about it?

May 16, 2022

How to communicate with someone who has mental health concerns while showing sensitivity and caring. 

by Russ Turner, Director of the People Incorporated Training Institute

Hi, how are you? Most respond with “fine,” but who really means it? People say they’re “fine” an average of 14 times a week and only mean it 19% of the time so try this. Next time your friend says they’re fine, ask them if it’s a “good fine,” an “ok fine,” or a “bad fine” (you can do the same with the ubiquitous “busy” answer, too) – see where that takes them. The main thing is to find a way to communicate that you’re ok with whatever the answer is, and you can occupy that space with them in the conversation. Sometimes a good practice is simply asking the question twice: “how are you?” “Fine.” “No, really – how are you?” Tell them you’ve noticed they’ve been missing, quiet, whatever it is, and you’re wondering about them. Just hearing that is likely the most therapeutic thing they’ll have heard for a long time.

One thing we teach at the Training Institute is how to “hold space” with people who are upset. This means that you don’t push ahead with your plan for a moment (or two, or three) and just stay where the person is at in that moment, offering validations, paraphrases, and a good dose of “oh wow, that is terrible!” This ability to just hold yourself in the “space” of someone else’s distress, shame, or pain is the key. Most people feel very uncomfortable and push their way out of the space by offering the massively unhelpful, “it’ll be ok” or “well, it could be a lot worse!” Instead, just stay there with them for a few moments and offer a “say a bit more” or a “what’s that like?” and let them talk if they want to. If they don’t, then that’s fine – they will understand that you were there for them and will be in the future if they need you. That genuine connection with no judgment is amazing.

Russ Turner is the Director of the Training Institute at People Incorporated. To learn more about the Institute’s upcoming trainings, visit the Training webpage. You can donate to support this work to help make more training and mental health education available in your community.