Leadership advice

How do you help when someone tells you they’re stressed?

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

A colleague tells you he’s feeling more stressed as the weeks go by. 

Do you:

  1. Tell him it’s normal these days and not to worry.
  2. Explain what you do when you feel anxious.
  3. Ask him to tell you more.

Trust me, #3 is your best option. It allows you to be an informed coach, rather than an advice-giver who’s commenting on an incomplete picture.

Good coaching is built on questions. Open-ended, non-judgmental questions help both people identify core issues and options. 

These are open-ended questions:

  • How does the stress manifest itself?
  • Have you spotted any patterns to the stress?
  • What have you tried so far to deal with it?
  • What approaches seem to work better than others?

While asking these questions, listen carefully. Repeat back to the other person what you’ve heard, to make sure you are on the same page. Often, people may say, “That’s not what I really meant,” or “You understand perfectly.”

You can also reflect: “I think I’m hearing you say you’ve taken on a lot of additional responsibilities and aren’t sure you can talk with your boss about it.  What would it take for you to do that?”

You can also reframe: “You’ve said your boss should know how difficult things are for you right now,  and you’re sure she doesn’t care. Are there other reasons she might not be aware of your situation?”

I think you see where I’m going here. The more questions you ask, the more options you reveal. You learn things that weren’t evident at the start of a conversation – information you now know would make you regret having said, “It’s normal” or “Here’s what I do” right out of the blocks.

Those responses may actually be valuable at some point in the conversation, but only after you’ve used the power of questions to know precisely when and why to share them.

Here’s what I teach aspiring coaches: The first story you hear is never the full story. The power of questions helps you find it – and helps everyone find better answers.


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