Communicating and Listening Non-Judgmentally: Tools for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

I am finding as I train, coach and mediate that the issues in the workplace are becoming more complex. In recent events, some high profile individuals have come to the attention of the media as a result of their actions. We are finding mental health issues are more of a concern and the means to address them is less easy. In this article, I am attempting to share some tools you may want to engage in when speaking with your colleagues or employees.

Communication is not just saying words; it is creating correct understanding. Active listening is an essential skill in the communication process. Dr Marius Pickering from the University of Maine identifies four characteristics of empathetic listening.

The desire to be “other-directed”, rather than to project one’s feelings and ideas onto the other person.

The desire to be non-defensive, rather than to protect themselves. When they are being protected, it is difficult to focus on another person.

The desire to imagine the experience, roles and perspective of the other person, rather than assuming they are the same as one’s own.

The desire to listen as the receiver, not be critical; and
The desire to understand the other person rather than to reach either agreement from or change in that person.

Interestingly, the average person speaks at a rate of 100-150 words per minute. An auctioneer, on the other hand, does a rapid-fire 250 to 400 words per minute. Those, however, are exceptions. When you are just having a chat, you will usually speak at a rate of 110 to 130 words per minute. Most listeners understand as many as 600 words per minute, which is why I talk so quickly sometimes. That means everybody is a good listener. Not! We can lose our focus for many reasons: we do not understand what is being said; we do not agree with the speaker; we are bored or lack interest, or we want to give answers.

The person sharing the information becomes aware they are not being listened to and begin to feel more unheard and rejected. To really listen, we have to practice active listening. Yes, it is a skill that may be learned and mastered. When dealing with stressful situations in the workplace, you need to be a supportive listener by showing warmth and caring in the way we listen.
Here are some pointers to assist us in becoming better listeners.
Don’t interrupt. Silence is a powerful tool. Being quiet and let the other person think. You cannot listen and talk at the same time.

Keep an open mind. Do not judge or jump to conclusions. Think before you respond.
Make listening to a priority. Stay focused. Stay in the present. Eliminate distractions, like emails and cell phones.

Show respect for the person and their feelings. Even if you disagree.
Avoid giving advise, even when asked. Offer options and suggestions. Allow them to discover their best answer.

Learn the art of asking good questions: open-ended (How…? What…? Could…? Would…?). Alternatively, closed-ended (Is? Are? Do? Did?)

Listen with empathy. Try putting yourself in their shoes to try and understand their point of view.

Use attending behaviours to let the person know you are listening, like “mmmm,” “uh-huh,” or “I see”.

Watch non-verbal behaviour. Clarify to ensure you are reading the non-verbal behaviour correctly. Keep an open body posture, sit down if possible and try to sit beside the person rather than facing them. Maintain eye contact, if culturally appropriate but do not stare.

Checking to understand. Make sure you inquiry to clarify what you think you heard and to ensure you comprehend. Paraphrasing in your own words. Summarizing to ensure you have received the correct message, focus and understanding.

Providing feedback. Give open, honest feedback. Again checking for understanding.

At the end of the conversation, you should agree with the person what will happen next and who will take action. If after the discussion, you feel distressed, you should find someone to talk to for support and advice, while respecting the person’s privacy. If your expectations of the discussion are not met, be aware that your actions may still make a difference, e.g. the person may speak to someone else about their problem.

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Strategies to Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias is hitting the news. From Bay Street to Main Street to Starbucks the impact of unspoken bias is real and harmful to the workplace. Bias stands in the way of making correct decisions in hiring and promoting. It also has a vital impact on your staff and the workplace in general. Let’s explore how we can become aware of our own bias and stop it in the workplace?

First, let’s define it. “Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.” (ECU: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education)

We all have a bias. The question is, do we identify it and then what do we do about it? In addressing one of the most crucial training issues facing the workplace today, unconscious bias, employers can assist in creating an inclusive, civil and respectful workplace.

Research indicates that unconscious biases are prejudices we have, yet are uninformed of. They are “mental shortcuts based on social norms and stereotypes.” (Guynn, 2015). Biases can be based on skin colour, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, disability status (for example, the use of a wheelchair or a cane), foreign accents, where someone went to college, and more (Wilkie, 2014). If you can name it, there is probably an unconscious bias for it.

Hence if we think we are unbiased, we may have unconscious adverse thoughts about people who are outside our own group. If we spend more time with people from other groups, we are less likely to feel prejudice against them.

This universal tendency toward unconscious bias exists because bias is rooted in our brain. Research shows that our brain has evolved to mentally put things together to make sense to us. The brain sorts all the information it is blasted with and labels that information with universal descriptions that it may rapidly access. When we categorize these labels as either good or bad, we tend to apply the rationale to the whole group. Many of the conclusions are taken from previous experiences and learnings.

In an article, “The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace”, a few of the known unconscious biases that directly impact the workplace include:
• Affinity bias is the tendency to warm up to people like ourselves.
• Halo effect is thinking everything about a person is good because you like that person.
• Perception bias is the inclination to form stereotypes and assumptions about specific groups that make it awkward to make an objective judgement about members of those groups.
• Confirmation bias is the openness for us to pursue evidence that sanctions our pre-existing beliefs or experiences.
• Group think is a bias which occurs when people attempt to fit into a specific crowd by mirroring others or holding back opinions and views. This results in individuals losing part of their characteristics and causes workplaces to miss out on originality and creativity.

Horace McCormick’s research found more than 150 identified unconscious biases, making the task of rooting them out and addressing them daunting. For many organizations, however, identifying as many as possible and eliminating them has become a high priority.

You can address discrimination issues by increasing your awareness of your unconscious biases, and by developing strategies that make the most of the talents and abilities of your team members.

Unconscious behaviour is not just individual; it influences organizational culture as well. This explains why so often our best attempts at creating corporate culture change with diversity efforts seem to fall frustratingly short; to not deliver on the promise they intended.
What you can do
• Be aware consciously of your bias
• Focus more on the people, on their strengths
• Increase Exposure to Biases
• Make small changes
• Be pragmatic
• Challenge stereotypes and counter-stereotypical information
• Use context to explain a situation
• Change your perception and relationship with out-group members
• Be an active bystander
• Improve processes, policies & procedures

Also, managers can play a crucial role in unearthing these hidden biases by declaring their intentions to be non-biased. They can also provide transparent performance appraisals that emphasis on the employee’s exceptional abilities and skills, and grow a stronger mindfulness of their own unconscious principles.

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