Having a Compassionate Conversation in the Workplace


A friend, Henry rung me up, half crying/half laughing about a “super-awkward-wanted-to-die-in-a-hole moment at work where a colleague, Emma, essentially asked him if he had mental health issues. His first reaction still makes me laugh thinking about and was something like - oh gosh she thinks I am batty. Have I been rampaging naked around the office? Crawling under desks pretending to be a baby? Despite the humorous image we were aware that his thought process was entirely flawed and adhered to every stigma in the book about mental health. Once he stopped overreacting and asked Emma why she was having this conversation with him, Emma said that she had noticed he was a bit withdrawn and wasn’t as involved in the team and wondered if everything was okay. It seemed this chat was coming from a place of compassion and had no obvious hidden agenda.
After I got off the phone to my friend, I was thinking about this story a lot. I thought it must be really great for him to know that there is someone in the workplace that is looking out for him and could go to if he needed. 
Managers and even friends often think that bringing a difficult conversation up will make things worse: “oh gosh, I don’t want to offend him” someone may say – “What if everything is fine and I’m overreacting? It’s not even my place” another may add. These seem like reasonable comments but you are losing out on an opportunity to take purposeful action and support a colleague. People don’t like to ask for help, particularly those that need it most and they don’t know you are ‘there for them’ unless you have conveyed that clearly.
A study published in 2012 in BMC Public Health¹ found employees had lower stress levels when they felt like they’re bonding. Considering that Chandola (2010) estimated the cost of stress, anxiety and depression is £7-£10 billion², this is a compelling reason to have these ‘difficult’ conversations and ensure you are seeing the human inside your colleague.
What’s more – showing compassion is actually contagious and can encourage others do the same. This was highlighted by Fowler et al in his 2007 study that provided empirical evidence that “cooperative behaviour cascades in human social networks”³, meaning that kindness/cooperation is reciprocated. 
So how do you have one of these conversations?
1. Make it informal
2. Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult things
3. Follow up 
At the time, Emma probably didn’t think she had made an impression on my friend and thought she has got it wrong. This was not the case and my friend remembered and some months later when he did end up needing to talk to someone at work, he went to Emma.
Written by Katie Zimmerman

Katie works for EY and has continually taken an active interest in Organisational psychology and Wellbeing. Katie uses her own experiences and understanding of the workplace to blog for Yoke Consultancy.