It's an understatement to say times are tough. Everyone is struggling right now -- some more acutely than others. There is no such thing as "business as usual," and for many of us, our entire lives have been upended, several times over. 

Conventional wisdom holds that leaders should be optimistic in times of crisis. "We're going to get through this." "It'll be OK." "I know everything will work out." 

Have you uttered one of these sentences recently? I know I have.

For some folks on your team, this type of positivity from leadership is the morale boost they need. But for others -- people who are really struggling -- it can be downright harmful.

Years ago, I was a volunteer with a crisis hotline. One of the first things we learned in training was that it wasn't our job to fix people's problems (and how could we in the span of a 10-minute phone call?). We were there to simply listen, validate the person's experience and feelings, and let them know there was someone out there who cared about them. That's it. 

Especially during this pandemic, true listening -- instead of trying to "fix," or paint a rosy picture of the future -- is more important than ever. Optimism is essential at the team and company level, but well-intentioned phrases like "You're going to be OK" can also feel like a rejection of someone's experience. 

What should managers do instead? Validate. Remember that everyone's experience is valid by definition -- even if it's vastly different from your own. And through validation -- telling people you believe their feelings are real and worthy -- you inherently let them know they're not alone. 

Consider that validation is important to all of us, not just when we're having a particularly hard time, or even dealing with depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition. To understand why, just think about a time when you were trying to vent to someone -- a partner, a roommate, a family member -- and all they would say is "Well, what I would do is ... " or "I don't understand why you're so upset about this," or even "Oh, it'll work out."

Annoying, right? 

Now imagine the thing you wanted to talk about was far more significant, and you felt vulnerable even at the thought of opening up. Validation, or lack thereof, could have a huge impact on not just your experience with that person but also your overall well-being.  

Try one of the following phrases to validate a struggling employee's feelings and open the door to future conversations:

  • That sounds really difficult.

  • It's understandable that you would feel that way. 

  • That's a lot to deal with.

  • There is no "right" or "wrong" with feelings -- your experience is valid. 

  • Thank you for sharing with me. 

  • I'm here for you. 

It's only after validation that you can point people in the direction of company resources they can take advantage of, such as an employee assistance program or counseling services. 

It can be incredibly intimidating to open up about mental health. By letting people talk and validating whatever they choose to share, you become a safe person to share with -- during Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond.