Honest observation – that which is done without judgement or bias – speaks the truth.
The trouble is that we like to read more into things. Scientists refer to “the theory of mind”, that very human skill which seeks to go beyond what is presented, more specifically to infer intention or motivation. The real “why” behind the action or comment. In my view I would like to suggest that this can be susceptible to projections which reflect what we want, or often “don’t” want, to see.
In an age where mental health has become such a societal problem – one in four adults will experience a mental health event in a given year – we need to take more time to see what it is and acknowledge it. So that we might respond to a situation, rather than our own inferred version; so that we might reach out and support those that need it.
I would certainly suggest that we can do this. But we need to be mindful of the interplay of our own unconscious narratives and interpretations.
The practice of non judgemental observation
Equine facilitated learning creates a powerful way to sharpen our observation. To share an example:
I was working with a charity trustee who was clearly having some trouble interacting with her fellow board members. I suggested to her she allow the space that four of the dressage letters around the arena should represent different trustees. I then gave her a horse and asked her to take it for a walk around the school.
I asked the rest of the group to do nothing just observe the horse. When the lady returned I asked the group “which letters represented challenging peers?” With no further prompt from me they all named the same places/people. They were right. The horses subtle reactive behaviour had been enough to create the awareness.
When we look, we see. If we are not careful we then process and interpret. When we suspend judgement, we can the see the truth rather than our personal narrative or choice. Think of those moments when we look away from the Big Issue seller rather than saying “no thank you” or engaging them in discussion or hear their story. We too easily look away from what we see in others. We see but we choose to turn our attention away.
The observation exercise with the horse proves just how subtle our perceptions can be. The horse shows us how the very subtle shift in our states need to be to illicit a response. Whilst we may not have the acute social awareness of the horse, we are less blind than we often claim. When we know there are signs we can see them. It is about training the skill.
Learning to read
Stress happens, this is not negotiable. At work we are really exposed. Each of us have differing capacities to handle it. The issue is not a judgement for observer or colleague, it is about the individual. The person who experiences the stress. So how do we know?
We learn to read the signs.
In the UK, the Mental Health Foundation outlines very specific ways that an individual may present a challenged mental health state.
Emotional: Employees who are struggling with their mental health may seem irritable, sensitive to criticism, demonstrate an uncharacteristic loss of confidence or seem to lose their sense of humour.
Cognitive: An employee may make more mistakes than usual, have problems making decisions, or not be able to concentrate. Look out for any sudden and unexplained drop in performance at work.
Behavioural: This could include things like arriving late, not taking lunch breaks, taking unofficial time off, not joining in office banter, or not hitting deadlines, becoming more introvert or extroverted, generally acting out of character.
Physical: Employees who are stressed sometimes exhibit physical symptoms such as a constant cold, being tired at work, looking like they haven’t made an effort with their appearance, or rapid weight loss or gain.
Business: At a business level, look out for increased absence or staff turnover. Have you noticed employees working longer hours or a general drop in motivation or productivity levels?
The courageous choice
And so it is for us the learn to see what is there before us. Compromised mental health is rarely completely unseen. But it takes a courage to overcome that tendency to look the other way or ignore. It is a very courageous compassion that turns and faces, that enquires, that offers support or signposts options.
When we see, we can act. And in acting we support. We each have the capacity. We each have a choice.