“Maybe you should see a psychologist” – How do you bring up this sensitive subject?

September 30, 2016

“Maybe you should see a psychologist”. Has anyone ever suggested this to you? If they did, would you see it as a positive suggestion or would you be affronted, as if they were implying that all was not right in your head? It’s tricky, isn’t it? A bit of a taboo subject.

Recently,  I’ve had a few conversations with people who’ve said they think it would be helpful if their colleague/client/boss/friend talked to me but they don’t know quite how to broach the subject. Let’s be clear here, I’m talking about work-related issues. I’m neither a psychotherapist nor a clinical psychologist. I don’t delve deeply into people’s childhood trauma or diagnose mental health issues. But I, and lots of psychologists like me, often work with people grappling with issues such as:

  • Personality (or, perhaps, shadow side of personality) characteristics that are holding them back.
  • Behaviour that is causing problems with working relationships.
  • Childhood experiences that have left them less confident than they would like.
  • Personal or domestic crises that mean they are struggling to hold it all together at work.
  • The legacy of negative work experiences that have left them over-cautious and unable to fulfill their potential for fear of being slapped down again.
  • A move to a bigger job that makes them feel out of their depth but afraid of admitting that they don’t always know what they’re doing.

These are situations any of us could face and are part of normal working life. But they are in the territory of ‘stuff going on in your head’. They can be messy and embarrassing and people often don’t like talking about them. So, if you’re watching someone struggle with these kinds of things and genuinely want to help, how do you bring up this sensitive subject? Well here are a few pointers.

Problem? What problem?

Firstly, establish whether or not the person recognises that they may have a problem. You may have noticed that they’ve alienated half the office or that they look more tense and stressed out every time you see them, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ve admitted it to themselves.

Suggesting any kind of solution to someone who doesn’t know they have a problem is about as useful as trying to sell a lawnmower to a man with no garden. This is not the time to helpfully hand them the details of your favourite psychologist. As I discussed in a previous article, the aim at this stage is to get the person to be more open to the idea that all may not be well. What’s needed is a genuinely supportive approach with lots of open questions, lots of listening and maybe some gentle feedback. For example, “I can’t help noticing that you seem a bit stressed out at the moment. How’s everything going?” (Not, you notice, “Is everything ok?”. That kind of closed question gives people the option to just say “yeah fine” and the conversation stops dead).

I can handle it…

If the person does recognise there’s an issue but insists they can handle it on their own, well, maybe they’re right and it’s time to back off. broodingBut if you sense that, rather than actually handling it, they’re bottling stuff up and hoping it all goes away, then maybe some gentle encouragement may be appropriate.

Anything you can do to make talking things through with a professional seem like a normal, sensible thing to do, rather than an admission of weakness, will help. If you have ever used a psychologist, a coach or a counsellor yourself, then maybe share that with them. You don’t have to go into details but you might normalise it for the other person if you disclose that you once found it useful to get some perspective on stuff by talking it over with someone.

If you haven’t ever used a psychologist, then be careful not to inadvertently give the impression that you think it would be really useful for them, not that you’d ever need one yourself, heaven forbid, no, you’re totally sane, but they, well, they might need some extra help……. It’s all too easy to reinforce the message you’re trying to avoid.

The shrink will see you now…..

There are, of course, many excellent coaches out there who could help people address some of these issues. Seeing a ‘coach’ may be more acceptable for some people than seeing a ‘psychologist’. Like many business psychologists, I sometimes describe myself as a leadership or executive coach, because that’s part of what I do. But fundamentally, I’m a psychologist who coaches and I don’t want to pretend that the psychology isn’t there. A psychologist has a different educational background and theoretical framework to draw on and can generally work at a deeper level.

I’m aware, of course, of people’s reactions to psychologists. I do a lot of networking and when I introduce myself as a business psychologist, there is generally a pause while people rearrange their faces to neutral, in case they’re giving something away. shrinkI’m not po-faced about this; humour is a great way of making psychology (and psychologists) more accessible. In on-line discussions psychologists trade stories about how to answer the inevitable question “Are you reading my mind?”. My favourite is “Yes, but I’m afraid that under the Data Protection Act, I’m not allowed to reveal the results”. (Honestly, we’re not reading your minds. And there’s no couch).

If you’re suggesting to someone that they might want to see a psychologist, then humour might be a really appropriate way of lightening the tone. But don’t overdo it. I recall once standing in the middle of an open plan office about to go into a meeting room with a new client, when a former client from the same organisation popped up. “Ooh”, he declared in his broad Yorkshire accent, “you’re seeing the shrink. Has she made you cry yet?”. Perhaps not the best start.

If you’re trying to figure out how to broach a conversation like this with someone, I’m happy to talk it through with you. And if you’re grappling with issues at work, why wait for a concerned colleague to nudge you in the direction of help. I’m just a click away: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

Photo credits

Psychologist: Drew Leavy

Brooding: rippchenmitkraut66

Shrink:  Mike Renlund

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