Copywriter Miranda Barrett, discusses the Courageous Conversations event at this year's Wellbeing Festival.

The week-long Wellbeing Festival kicked off with an inspirational talk around courageous conversations with Samantha Clarke, a happiness consultant, TEDx & Keynote Speaker & author of Love It or Leave It – How to be Happy at work.

It seemed fitting in a week where our focus was to encourage open and honest conversations around mental health in the workplace that Samantha share her strategies around why and how we can have better conversations with one another.

Conversation is shared, reciprocal nourishment that enables humans to create and exchange trust, wisdom, courage and friendship…

It is an art that has to be learned and practiced and its range constantly expanded or it becomes stultified and repetitive.

Theodore Zeldin

Samantha champions interpersonal skills in the world of work with a view to emotional honestly and receptive listening. Her talk emphasised conversation as an art form – a changing dialogue to be practiced and honed like any other skill. In this blog we’ll share some of her top tips.

The power of open questions…

Practicing asking open questions can help gain a better understanding of an individual’s issues. This in turn guides the individual in how they share their story with you. When we ask open questions, they usually require a more descriptive answer which can lead to more thinking and reflection allowing the individual to take ownership of their thoughts and actions. 

What and how we chose to ask, and the way we chose to ask it are all key to relationship building and good communication skills. It’s important that we can be mindful in noticing an individual’s bid and respond in the right way.  Being consistently present in the moment in your relationships and balancing the needs of the other person with that of your own are all important tactics to having good conversations. 

But sometimes that’s not easy…

Imagine. You’re finishing up after an especially long week when a colleague asks if you can stay a couple of hours late. Your instinctive reaction, Samantha said, is to say no, but if for whatever reason you struggle to decline outright, you may resort to a number of combative behaviours.

This might seem trivial, but it is a form of interpersonal conflict – or, as she succinctly put it, “things becoming prickly”. While you may be able to shrug it off this time, these interactions, if not resolved, can build up to cold resentment or outright confrontation.

But conflict resolution is just one part of a healthy working environment. Honest and open discussion around mental health is determined by Samantha to be absolutely essential in a working environment, both for the prevention of conflicts like these, and for our general wellbeing.

Learning how to ask for what you need…

There are many reasons why someone may struggle to express their needs. Samantha encouraged introspection through journaling, meditation and other techniques to explore, without fear or judgement, why we behave as we do.

Much like the actor’s mask we suppress the expression of our needs in favour of an idealised version of events which, most of the time, fails to appear.

But being honest with yourself about what you need from your colleagues is the first step to a healthy working relationship. When having conversations about what you need, Samantha shared these tips:

1. Be clear about your need and why it matters to you

2. Don’t assume the responsibility lies with the other person

3. Don’t try and change the other person

4. Use statements about feeling rather than thinking

And then there’s the art of active listening…

It’s important to practice mindful, active listening when trying to foster a culture of belonging at work. Samantha shared four main listening habits to challenge us all to think honestly about which level we were functioning at right now?

1. Habits – where we simply reiterate our habits of judgement and cherry-pick the conversation to confirm those opinions. We do not have an open mind.

2. Outside – keeping an open mind, we notice differences in our habits of judgement and use them to disconfirm our pre-conceived opinions and form new judgements in turn.

3. Within – where we move from open mind to open heart, forming an empathetic, emotional connection that allows us to see through another person’s eyes.

4. Source – where we operate from a position of open will. This mindset is future-focussed, shifting our ideas of identity and self to influence our future actions.

These skills do not guarantee perfection in our work, our lives, our relationships. But by using them we can create a working environment which treats emotional honesty as the strength it is and provides support for the challenges faced in finding it.

Illustrations for the festival by Hannah Robinson.