‘Only connect’: how active listening can build happier, healthier and more successful workplaces.

Life is difficult.

Photo by Nico E. on Unsplash

I was so relieved to see this opening line to ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck; it was like a spell being broken. Even today, decades after I first read it, I revert to thinking, ‘I shouldn’t find this (fill in the gap) difficult — how come everyone else seems to know what they are doing?

‘Seems’ is the operative word. I know I’m not alone. Maybe we all have self-doubt and varying degrees of impostor syndrome. And crucially, I know from experience at work and in my own life, that when we connect authentically with each other, life, even at its most dreadful, becomes easier.

Something is shifting in our willingness to admit the salient — ‘life is difficult’ — fact. More of us are starting to take risks and find the courage to speak out about our mental health challenges. The more it happens, the more we take inspiration, the gentler the world gets. From wonderful initiatives like CALM or #HeadsTogether and many more, the word is spreading. It’s OK to talk. It’s OK not to be OK.

The studies have been done: we know more clearly than ever, that a significant number of sickness absences are caused by mental ill health. At least 1 in 6, probably more — whether employed or freelance — are currently struggling with a mental-health related issue. Anxiety or depression may be lying behind physical illness by staff not keen to admit their challenge openly. Not one of us can sail through life without difficult feelings around big life changes, a loss of a loved one, or a illness of whatever form: all the turns life takes that we cannot insure against.

Just yesterday a group of professionals donated time and expertise to to deliver for the ‘Thrive in the City: Emergency Services’. Thrive in the City held their first event at the end of last year. Yesterday it was my privilege to lead an experiential session: how quality listening at work can build happier work lives: full of trust and support for individuals in highly stressful roles. These frontline workers on whom we all depend, deserve it.

This last year has been peppered by moments where I’ve been in a room full of people and felt those lovely butterflies that signal, ’Oh wow… this is my tribe!’ Having had a serious burnout in my own life and a long period off work some years back, I want a work life where we are able to bring more of our selves, our humanity, to work. To relieve the strain: life is difficult.

Being asked to speak on Mental Health Awareness Day 2016 kicked a new ball rolling. Then in researching my work on listening, I came across the Institute of Directors’ first ever report into ‘Mental Health in the Workplace’. At the launch, were all these senior people; employed and entrepreneurial and the Directors of Mind and the IoD, speaking with passion about their experience with mental health challenges.

Mid-afternoon in our break out group happened to be the Downing Street person. My question, ‘In the meetings at Downing Street — do people talk openly about how they look after their mental health?’, was met with a surprised silence. This person looked like they hadn’t slept for a month: I can only imagine the pressures of their job. So yes, Downing Street folk are looking at the issues but maybe not yet, at their own reality.

To round off that day Geoff McDonald, former Global VP HR at Unilever, shared his mental health journey. Together with Georgie Mack and Stacy Thomson, Geoff has co-founded the Minds@Work network. They hold energised events to which anyone is welcome, and which for me, have been inspirational and heartening. To talk openly about the stuff that, as a rule, working people don’t share, is such a R E L I E F. And we get to hear heartfelt experience from others, from dark times to recovery — and all breaks the ‘I’m fine’ mantra, opening up the space for all of us.

Now the connections are coming thick and fast. Just a couple of weeks ago the Samaritans, in partnership with the Lord Mayor’s Appeal launched ‘Wellbeing in the City’, helping people to initiate conversations with someone they may be concerned for and then, to listen. Everywhere we look now, businesses are keen to up their game on the well-being front. They’re either really concerned or just cottoning on to the business case; it doesn’t matter as long as they are paying quality attention.

Then there are inspiring initiatives from HeadsTogether and #TimetoTalk… the list goes on. I am starting to feel the delightful inner peace and acceptance that comes with no more ‘networking’ but instead, ‘I belong here, how can I contribute my bit?’

And at the first Thrive in the City last November, co founders, Julia Hillman, Will Nicholson and Stacy Thomson, created a day of sessions given by a huge range of volunteer professionals for all city workers‘…to be who they are… leave behind the stigma, hierarchy and pressures of everyday working life’.

I heard therapists share anonymous stories from their practice — tales from the ‘walking wounded’ that exist in every workplace. I know — I was one. After the event, Louise Aston, from Business In The Community, said: ‘Asking how people are, really meaning it and taking time to listen makes a real difference to our workplace wellbeing — a whole approach to mental wellbeing is needed.’

We are all human. We all have responsibility for our physical, mental and emotional health. In so many workplaces we’ve created this atmosphere where we can’t or daren’t say what’s really going on.

For twenty plus years, I’ve mediated the arguments of hundreds of people in health, business or workplace conflicts, to support them to find resolution. Very often, meeting those individuals in the mediation room, for them it is the very first time that someone has fully listened, heard and accepted the struggle they are in and the impact its having on them. Often there are tears. Yet, once they find that they are heard, and in confidence, people start to find some willingness (often after the air has been ‘cleared’ for a few hours) to build solutions based in empathy for themselves and the other person.

The key skill, is to be able to listen without pre-judging what the outcome should be. Sounds simple, but its by no means easy. From this experience, along with years of training people with better brains than mine, I see that no matter what our pay grade — we all struggle to listen without an agenda or a keen desire to solve the problem. Its instinctive to try to ‘help’.

This matters to me because I’ve long held a vision to create a world where people can be real. Where they can tell it like it is. When they are truly seen, heard and acknowledged for the way things are right now, people previously stuck, start to change, to find wonderful ways forward.

I know that when I am seen, heard and accepted as I am, whatever the scenario, however ‘messy’ or emotional I feel, I start to find relief, even if, ‘for now, there is nothing I can do’. Often it is an an idea or inspiration comes to me purely through being heard.

So enhancing our everyday listening skills can do much for the world.

It helps reach those who are ‘coping’ in isolation or struggling with performance issues or some manifestation of stress. And for us doing the listening, it helps us connect with authenticity, clarity and humanity. It also (I know this too) will boost confidence and build rapport with fellow workers — a sense of belonging and being truly valued.

When Geoff McDonald was at Unilever they transformed their approach to mental health: they found an incredible 10:1 rate of return from their employee mental health programmes. The results? Real business benefits, reduced absence and increased productivity.

How we build lasting, creative, enjoyable and effective work or business relationships is one positive exchange at a time. We all know what doesn’t work in dealing with colleagues. It is the quality of the communication that creates the ground for happier people, more creative and effective teams and loyalty which will also, just by the way, improve the bottom line.

When teaching people how to listen actively for even three minutes, I sometimes see the scales fall from their eyes: they find the deeper connection and presence to be able to support a person, purely by being there for them.

As Guy Browning so neatly puts it, ‘Listen with your ears, listen with your eyes, listen with your heart.’

This is what matters to me.

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