A Colleague Turns to You for Help. What Do You Do?

In her recent keynote address at the awards dinner for Corporate Counsel’s Women, Influence and Power in Law in Washington DC, ex Department of Justice lawyer Katherine Manning talked about trauma. Always an empathetic person who had felt unsettled by some of the more inhumane aspects of law firm culture, Manning ultimately was able to put her empathy to use working with crime victims at the DOJ, helping them deal with the traumas they experienced.

These days, Manning notices, it isn’t just crime victims who are in need of a listening ear. The pandemic has increased the rates of depression and anxiety across the population, and many people are still struggling with ongoing health and caregiving crises caused by the pandemic. One of the biggest lessons law firms have been forced to learn during this time is that it is unrealistic and harmful to expect employees to maintain an impenetrable wall between their personal and professional lives. When people are struggling, that shows up at work. Not only do we need to normalize this very human occurrence, but we all need to prepare to be the person a colleague turns to for help. What can we do to be a source of support? How can we come through for the people we have spent months and years working beside?

Manning offers a simple framework for stepping up and providing support — LASER:

Listen: Truly listen to your colleague, not just with your ears but with your entire body. Give this person your full attention and show that you are hearing them by nodding and encouraging them to confide in you. Resist the urge to suggest a solution or judge the information in any way.

Acknowledge: Reflect back what you are hearing. “It sounds like what you are saying is…” Even if you disagree with the person’s point of view, don’t take anything personally, and don’t get defensive. Don’t make a comparison to something else that happened in the office or in your personal life. Affirm that you hear what they are saying and empathize with their feelings.

Share: Depending on the situation, share any information you can that might help them. People in a crisis are less likely to remember things they hear, so you may have to repeat it or write it down. If appropriate, provide any resources you know of that might help the person start moving toward a healthy resolution of the problem. This may be an employee assistance program through the firm or the bar association, or a referral to a doctor or other professional you know of personally who may be able to help.

Empower: Don’t take action for them. Give them the resources and preserve their autonomy to make a decision about what to do next.

Return: Come back to the person, maybe multiple times over a few days, weeks or months, to check on them and inquire about what steps they decided to take. Remember, this colleague chose you because they believed you would be trustworthy and want to help. Continue to show support within the limits of your own boundaries.

Learning to be a better listener and source of support is one concrete step we can all take to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. Who knows — maybe someday you will be the one turning to a colleague for help.