Having important conversations with a loved one who has Mental Illness can be challenging. They may not have the capacity to listen to you, open up or participate.

It’s a real catch 22. It’s important to let your loved one know they are still very much part of your life and that their input is wanted and is valuable, however without them engaging how do you get it?

How to talk to someone with Mental Health Needs
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The best place to start is to make time for it

Don’t try and fit conversations in or have them in passing. It’s commonplace in today’s busy household to have a conversation whilst doing something else. It might even be a passing comment about adding cucumbers to the shopping list as everyone exits the front door and scatter to their various destinations.

This is challenging to keep track of in an environment where there is no history of mental illness. Taking this approach in a family where there are these considerations can be too much and can often result in unfavourable outcomes.

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Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics; what makes up a meaningful and productive conversation?

It’s a skill we are losing as the pace continues to increase in everyday day life. We text, we email, how often do we converse? We need to make time for it.

In our household if there is something we need to talk about, really talk about, we go out. We take ourselves away from the house and away from all the distractions and we talk. We call these “brewers’ meetings” as we go to the local pub.

So, what does make for a productive and meaningful conversation? I know these points may seem trivial where there is already a relationship, however bear with me.

It’s two way

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This sounds obvious, however it’s very easy to talk about yourself more than the other person. This is especially true when people maybe feeling vulnerable and lonely as a result of the impact, on all parties, of Mental Illness.

It’s important to strike a balance. If one person is more likely to lead a conversation than the other, perhaps they can talk about their day to break the ice, but briefly, and then ask about the other person to bring them into the conversation.

It’s not a monologue

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Alternatively, if you find yourself speaking too much, remain quiet. Often others will speak up if there is a pause in a conversation but won’t interject. Give them the chance to get involved in the dialogue.

Too much of one person talking can be boring at best and intimidating at worst. It doesn’t encourage others to participate.

Silence can be very powerful. It gives the other person a calm, open and safe space to talk about what they want to talk about.  Try not to interrupt, it’s easy to offer opinions or thoughts, but letting someone speak can yield insight you wouldn’t have otherwise been given.

Be friendly, completely open and build rapport.

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Perhaps an odd one to put in here when talking about conversations between loved ones, however sometimes we can lose our connection. When Mental Illness is part of the relationship there are times when the connection can be harder than others. We may need to take the time to rebuild that rapport in order to connect enough to have the conversation.

Actively Listen

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It’s important to listen and focus on what the other person is saying, and to show that you are taking the time to do that. 

It might be that you don’t have an immediate response, however there is nothing more soul destroying that not receiving a reply to something you have said. This is even harder if you have shared something you consider very personal.

If you are unsure of what to say, then acknowledge that you have heard them.

You can do this by reflecting back what they have said, firstly to be sure that you have understood, and to ask for time to think. For example;

“I hear that you are telling me you are having a hard time at work, that you want to change jobs. I know this is difficult for you and I want you to know I am here for you. I would like to take a bit of time to think about what you’ve said, is that okay?”

Open and closed questions.

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A conversation will be brief if based around closed questions.

A closed question is one which results in a “yes” or “no” reply.

An open question on the other hand invites a more informed response and starts with “how”, “why” or “what”.

Be careful using “why” however as “why” can be taken personally and as a form of judgement. This can be very damaging.

Be interested and don’t be hurried

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It’s important to be aware that different people have different resources available to them. Whilst you may be in a state where you can process a conversation quickly or your thoughts quickly, someone else may not.

Try not to judge their world by yours.

This is especially true when having a conversation which requires considered input or a decision from someone with Mental Health illness, they may need more processing time, so stay interested and give them that space.

Patient conversation can be like peeling an onion, you may have to go layer by layer and yes sometimes there maybe tears.

It may sound like we are having a conversation with a stranger and to be honest, this felt like my experience when I was talking to my husband on occasion. It’s important to invest the time and the effort and to engage with them though. They are still part of the family and if they feel excluded their illness may develop or they may lose more of their confidence and self-esteem.

Sometimes it’s worth coming back to the beginning in order to reconnect and move forward, together.

What do you think of our suggestions for improving conversations, do you have any more or have you tried some of these. We would love to hear from you in our comments below. Thank you

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