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. for some relevant articles. 


Monika B. Jensen PhD

Principal Aviary Group

Coach, Trainer and Mediator