Jeannine notices her coworker Monty has seemed off the last two weeks. Monty’s known on the team for being especially stylish, organized, and loud in a fun way. Lately he’s a bit less put together. The left side of his hair appears disheveled, he arrives late, and he appears on Zoom in the same shirt across multiple days. Jeannine didn’t view this as particularly alarming at first considering the novelty in shifting to remote work, but this paired with the absence of his usual enthusiasm in meetings, concerns her. She knows she needs to check in with him to see how he’s doing.
The bad news about checking in remotely is that the environment is less under her control. When she calls Monty up, distractions are more likely, their usual shared meal or coffee is an impossibility, and a conversation-conducive location is no longer a given.
The good news is that these elements are all secondary to Jeannine’s approach, which is entirely within her control. Her approach consists of bigger things like knowing and managing their dynamic, listening carefully and asking good questions, and matching what she says and how she reacts to Monty sharing. In other words, a successful check-in with a struggling colleague is a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ). Below are ten emotionally intelligent strategies you can add to your EQ toolbox for more successful check-in conversations.
1. Make sure you can handle the conversation. Going deep with someone takes a toll on you too. Before you engage with a struggling friend, check in with yourself. By recognizing that you might not be ready, you could save both of you from a damaging conversation, where the other person doesn’t feel heard and you feel brought down.
2. Nail your timing. Remote check-ins may derail your ability to set a good atmosphere, but you can at least find a good time when your struggling coworker isn’t too busy or stressed and is at their most receptive. It should be a mutually agreed on moment.
3. Know your power dynamic. If you’re someone’s boss, be aware that you might not be the person they want to open up to. Worst case, your employee may even think a check-in indicates worry about performance. Leave discussion about work for other times. This conversation is only about how the person is doing. If the conversation doesn’t go further, you’ve reached out and that is enough for now.
4. Approach gently. A lighter entry to a deep conversation helps oil the hinges. You don’t have to perform a joke, and you probably shouldn’t. Start with small talk. Ask about something lightly work-related, and make the conversation a bit more organic and a bit less forced. Listen for any opening to use your check-in question. If nothing obvious arises, perhaps give it more time.
5. Be specific. One way to stay in your lane is to share exactly what you noticed about your coworker that concerns you. Point out to Monty that he’s been late to three meetings and much less talkative this week. By communicating what you observed, you act as a mirror. Then just stop talking. The silence will give them a chance to respond. Often, observations serve as a natural entry point because the person realizes how their behavior looks and wants to explain. The key to this approach is not to make any assumptions and not to come across as judgmental.
6. Be open-ended. On the opposite end of the spectrum from specificity, a simple “How are things?” can offer an entry point, especially for someone who likes to share. Open-ended questions are useful because they don’t show judgment or a desire to pry something loose.
7. “Do you want to talk or do you want some distraction?” Posing this question sounds blunt but can be a great check-in question for someone you’re close to. Sometimes people prefer your company to your counsel.
8. Don’t push. When it comes to someone’s feelings, being pushy can cause people to clamp up, lash out, or resent you. This is especially true when they’re in a vulnerable state.
9. Get vulnerable. Sharing about yourself opens a kind of exchange. Saying something as small as “It’s been tough for me during social distancing to concentrate on listening during the meetings with my kids being noisy in the background,” can soften the environment. Showing vulnerability is an especially good strategy for supervisors approaching employees because it temporarily levels the playing field.
10. Don’t waste time sweating your response. When your coworker does open up, don’t expend all your mental energy trying to solve their problem or devise the perfect response. It’s tempting to ask what you can do to help, lay out your advice, or share your similar experience from third grade. But, all of these things distract the point of the conversation and often make it about you.
From Insights to Action. You might notice that each of these strategies boil down to the same thing: Making the other person comfortable. That’s because honest and vulnerable conversations can only happen when people feel comfortable enough to share.
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