How to start a conversation that can transform lives

This week I’ve had the privilege of speaking at three events as part of the R U OK? movement. This cause has built up a huge profile around Australia, most notably for R U OK? Day in September, but many businesses embrace the concept all year round.

It’s a simple idea: reminding people about the importance of having a conversation, particularly at challenging times. The right word at the right time really can change a life.

One of my presentations was in the financial services sector. It’s no secret that at the moment staff in those businesses are under enormous public pressure. While the senior leaders respond in the glare of the Royal Commission spotlight, regular staff are sometimes the forgotten casualties.

Having worked in government agencies in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons, I know how stressful it can be to represent a business that’s struggling with its reputation. It’s impossible to go to a social gathering and mention where you work without half an hour of questioning or unsettling conversation.

The R U OK? message reminds us that personal struggles don’t just come from relationship or money issues. Changes in our work environment can cause a significant amount of stress which can rock us to our very core. If there are people around you who seem to be struggling for whatever reason, opening up a connection - however brief - can really count.

The four R U OK? steps are simple: seek out the person and ask them how they're going; listen without judging; encourage them to take action and check in with them later.

Being the one who makes the connection can seem daunting; especially if you don't know them well or generally lack confidence. A simple three-step framework can help.

1.     Plan

If you had to make a major presentation you'd probably spend time planning and preparing, yet most of us don't put the same planning into individual conversations. In any interaction where the stakes are higher than social chat, have your first words and your key message ready. Things might change - you can’t, of course, control how the other person responds - but being planned in your approach makes a big difference to how you feel on the day.

It’s important to be aware of your frame of mind. Often we talk ourselves out of feeling confident because we’re thinking about a previous situation where a conversation didn’t go so well. Simply acknowledge that, and leave it at the door. This is a new day and a new conversation. Approach it with fresh eyes.

2.     Clarity

Have a clear picture of what you want the outcome of the conversation to be. Thee other person has a big stake in how it plays out, but if you can keep your eye on the main prize ( and maybe that’s simply to let them know you’re thinking about them), you’re more likely to stay focused and not get sidetracked by nerves or other distracting thoughts.

3.     It’s about them

This is important for all communication, and particularly for conversations where you want to make sure someone is OK. Take the focus off you and put it wholly on them and what they need, right in that moment.

Some of the most powerful words I ever heard came from a father who had just lost his son to suicide. He stood at the boy’s funeral, gazing out on rows of his son’s school mates in their  uniforms. He carefully looked each of them in the eye and said, “Please don’t do this. Whatever might be going on, there is always someone who cares. Please don’t do this."

What an incredible act of courage in that most difficult moment. I often wonder what impact those words had on those boys over the years. Maybe someone in that church needed to hear those words right then and there.

You can never know the true impact of every conversation you have, but know this: your words matter and so do the connections you form. In this world where we’ve never been more connected though technology, we risk losing our human connections. You can make a difference  by being the one who starts the conversation.

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