Men really want to talk, they just need the right environment, attitude, and questions to feel comfortable opening up.
So often people want to reach out to someone but don’t know how to start the conversation, hold a comfortable space, or know what to do when the conversation gets tough. All the tips I’m discussing are tailored for talking with men, but generally apply to women too, especially when a person identifies as being more masculine in nature. A major barrier to talking with men about their deepest challenges is our collective belief that men don’t want to communicate about how they’re feeling.
People always ask me:
“How do you find men willing to open up for your Tough Talk videos?”
The implication of this question seems to be that such men are a rare breed, yet this hasn’t been my experience at all. I regularly talk to men from a variety of backgrounds as I travel around New Zealand and many men leap at the opportunity to tell their stories.
Every so often I come across a man who could be described as “macho”. I find that as long as I use language they’re familiar with, ask open questions, remain respectful, and show a willingness to listen, then almost anyone will open up. The only exceptions have been when someone is really angry, anxious, sad, or simply not in the right mood to talk.
TIP #1: It’s easier for a mate to open up while doing an activity.
It can be intimidating for someone to open up in response to an invitation “to talk”. Their mind often goes to wondering what they’ve done wrong. It’s much easier for someone to accept an invitation to do an activity.
Conversations flow better when people are engaged in activity while speaking. For hundreds of years men have stood side by side in silence and companionship as they hunted, primarily using their eyes and body to communicate. Like hunting, other activities can provide a medium for communication. Having something to partially focus on makes tough conversations less intense and opens opportunities for nonverbal communication.
Here’s some one on one activities for you to consider: throwing a ball, walking, playing cards, fishing, building, crafts, running, gardening, shooting hoops, biking, and hunting...
TIP #2: Having the strength to share your own challenges makes it easier for a mate to talk.
A standout lesson from my journey has been that when I’m honest about my own insecurities and shed a tear, it supports others to do the same. Baring my soul seems to create a space where absolute honesty feels comfortable and safe. Often I don’t need to ask people any questions afterwards; people’s stories and emotions start flooding out.
If enough of us have the strength to be role models then there is potential for a ripple effect which could contribute to an improved culture of support. We start to see widespread social change when enough people are living according to a new social norm. Being honest about our internal struggles could become the normal thing!
TIP #3: A private space to talk one on one makes it easier for a mate to open up.
It can be really off-putting when someone brings up a sensitive issue in front of a group of people. It’s hard enough to accept challenging issues within the privacy of our own mind, let alone have them broadcast to our peers without warning. It doesn’t matter if everyone can see what’s going on already, talking about it in a group without permission can bring on shame and embarrassment.
Inviting someone into a private space for a one on one chat is a comfortable environment to talk within. There’s a lot you can do to create a tailored space for a tough conversation. For a start, make sure you have enough time to go deep (I recommend around 2 hours, but it fully depends on the situation), you could be doing an activity together (see Tip #1), you could provide some beverages and snacks (there’s something deeply comforting about sharing a meal), you could be playing suitable music in the background, and it may be appropriate to be situated in mutual territory, i.e. neither one of you has more power in the space, such as owning it.
It’s easier to talk when sitting next to someone, angled slightly towards them, but not directly facing them. It can feel more threatening when you’re sitting directly opposite each other. Ideally you won’t have anything in between you, like a table or desk as it creates a barrier to nonverbal communication. I’ve found that an ideal setting is in the outdoors, particularly by a fire, a body of water, or anywhere with a view.
TIP #4: Ask permission to talk and accept “no” for an answer.
It is really important to ensure someone is in the right space for a tough conversation. One approach is to invite the conversation through mentioning a relevant situation, e.g. “It must be hard not having your partner around anymore… Do you want to talk about it?” You could also try being more direct “I’ve noticed you’re going through a tough time, do you want to talk?” A useful follow up question is “what’s happening?”, rather than “what’s wrong?”
Sometimes the person won’t be in the right space to receive support. An opportunity for someone to express what they’re going through may be detrimental if they’re preoccupied by a strong emotion or mood, an immediate problem, a pressing task, or about to enter a situation where it isn’t safe to be emotionally vulnerable. Once you open something up it can take a while to close, so make sure you factor that into timing.
It is important that you respect when someone says “no”. Let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk or make a date for the future.
There is also the possibility that you’re not the best person for them to talk to. If you think this is the case, you could ask someone else if they would be willing to support them instead. You could also ask the person if you’re the right person for them to talk to and find someone else if you’re not. You might feel offended that someone isn’t willing to open up to you. Try your best to remember that support is about what is best for the person you are supporting.
TIP #5: Listen attentively until they’re finished talking.
This may sound obvious, but I can’t stress it enough - listening is a skill that’s extremely important to practise if you want to be a good support person.
Often when you’re listening to someone, something they say will trigger a thought in your head. This takes your attention away from listening. Usually when you end up engaging with a thought, you will want to talk about what you’re thinking. The issue with engaging with your own thought processes is that you’re not fully listening at the time.
At some stage the person you’re trying to support will realise they’re not being listened to, which may lead them to think that their point of view is not worth hearing. You could also miss a crucial part of what they’re saying, which could result in you missing an opportunity to say something they desperately need to hear at the time.
So how do you listen skillfully? It’s easy in theory, but it takes lots of practise to get good at. The first part of the skill is noticing when your attention has wandered away from listening. You may be dwelling on something that was said, thinking about what to say next, or distracted by something else going on around you.
When you notice that you’re engaging with your own thoughts, rather than listening, let the thought go - you don’t need to be thinking about it in that moment. I can’t stress how important this is, LET IT GO, even if it means forgetting it. People need for you to be holding a space of listening when they reach moments of expressing raw emotion and vulnerability!
Once you let go, bring your attention back to listening again. From there it is a continual process of noticing when your mind has drifted, letting the thought go, and focusing on listening again. Notice, let go, listen - again and again while the person is talking.
If it looks like they’ve got something else to say, try waiting patiently. If you see someone hesitate or say something like “oh no, don’t worry”, try asking them what they were about to say - they may need your encouragement to get it out. The entire conversation has been getting them to this point. It’s also useful to ask if they’re finished before saying something in response.
TIP #6: A mate’s burden is less heavy when you feel emotions with them
Dr. Robin Youngson started Hearts in Healthcare - a movement that promotes the phenomenal healing effect that can occur when people take the time to share other people’s pain. For a doctor, this may look like sitting with a patient, listening, and connecting with them until they experience a taste of what the patient is experiencing.
The phenomenal healing effect of compassion is not restricted to health professionals. It is a method that anyone can employ who wishes to support someone. The method is simple - hear someone out, look them in the eyes, put yourself in their position, and let yourself feel any feelings that come up.
Before offering support, check in with how you’re feeling and decide whether you have enough energy. If the answer is not clearly a yes then consider if there is anyone else around who may be able to support the person you’re concerned about.
It’s important to have boundaries when people are asking you directly for support. What that means is being able to say no when you’re not up to it. I personally find that people respect no, but respond to it even better when you explain why you’re not up to it. This reveals that you’re also vulnerable, which at least tells the person that they’re not alone.
You could support the person to find someone else, or plan a conversation for a later date. You will be much better at supporting someone when you’re feeling mentally well yourself.
TIP#7: Before finishing challenging conversations, try talking about something positive.
Another lesson I learnt while working as a psychologist was not to suddenly finish in the middle of a tough conversation because I was out of time. It can leave the person in worse shape than before you started talking. One way to know when a tough conversation has reached a natural end is that you feel a lift in mood and sometimes end up laughing and joking.
It’s important to ensure that there is at least 10 minutes to unwind from a conversation. The best technique I’ve learnt is to get someone to teach you something. Focusing on teaching shifts their attention. Their mood transforms as they communicate their knowledge. People often seem hesitant initially, but once they think of something to teach you, both of you will enjoy the shift in dynamic between the giving and receiving positions.
TIP #8: Whatever happens, let them know that you’re there for them.
The toughest thing about tough conversations is that they don’t always go well. Sometimes it feels like talking made something worse, sometimes people aren’t ready to open up a wound, and other times someone might feel angry or upset by something you said. Whatever happens, making time to support someone sends a message that you’re there for them, which is often the most important thing.
Sometimes on reflection I realise something I said may have been more harmful than helpful. If this happens, l always seek to “check in” about it later with the person. Ask an open question when you’re checking in, so you don’t bias their response, e.g. “do you remember when I said... how did that land for you?” If they let you know something upset them, then it is an opportunity to apologise and heal any rift caused between you.
If they’re not ready to open up, you could make it easier for them to contact you in the future, e.g. “I’m here for you, and I’m a phone call away if you ever want to talk”.
Advanced Tip: Acknowledge the advantages and usefulness of a point of view before challenging it.
Most of the time there are at least a few aspects of what someone is saying that are useful. However, other parts of what they’re saying may be contributing to the problems they’re experiencing. It is important to first identify the useful parts by pointing them out to the person. Acknowledging the truth of someone’s experience helps them see that you understand and respect them, which may help them accept your challenges to the aspects of their point of view that you think are less useful.
If they can keep the useful parts and modify the problematic parts then the result will most likely be a more balanced and healthy point of view.
Talking about suicide
People commonly think about suicide when they’re having a tough time. It is really supportive to keep calm and level headed if someone brings up suicidal thoughts. More often than not people won’t be planning to act on their thoughts. It is helpful for people to talk about their suicidal thoughts without feeling judged, or having you jump into panic mode, because it helps them realise that thinking about suicide is a normal part of coping.
If there is any reason to suspect someone is likely to attempt suicide imminently or has a method planned that is likely to be effective then it is important to act. Call 111 or go to your nearest emergency department (ED). There are also other options available to consider on the Mental Health Foundation’s website: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/
If the person you’re supporting is not planning to act on their thoughts, ask them questions to explore what is going on behind their thoughts - “what is causing the pain that you want to escape from?” It is helpful to talk about the people and activities in the person’s life that are likely to keep them safe. It is also useful to provide your phone number and ask the person to promise to call you if they find themselves going beyond thinking to taking action. You may be able to support them to get professional help before a crisis occurs - I recommend the following two search engines to find a psychologist, or talking to your GP about local therapy options.
Sometimes people won’t bring up thoughts of suicide without being prompted because they’re worried that they could be sent to hospital. I’ve found that if I’m concerned someone is thinking about suicide, then they usually are. People will feel more comfortable to talk about suicidal thoughts if you confidently ask them if they’ve been thinking this way; it shows them that it’s a normal response to their situation.
I believe good support boils down to being there for someone, creating a comfortable space, and sharing feelings in a genuine way. We absolutely need more support to take place at a community level if we want to see mental health and well-being to improve in Aotearoa. Get out there and support a mate, don’t be afraid to ask for a help, and let’s create a more supportive culture together.
Let us know in the comments if you tried any of these tips, and how they went! We'd also love to hear if there's anything you'd like for us to go deeper on.
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