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Preparing for Those Tough Conversations: How to Ask If Someone Is Okay

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Asking for help is often hardest when you need it the most. You may notice that someone you care about is struggling, but have no idea how to ask them what's going on. You may fear that asking none if they're OK reminds them of things they'd rather not think about, or you worry about putting them on the spot. Even though people aren't talking about something, that doesn't mean it's not bothering them. And sometimes, we have to take initiative and ask people how they're doing, so they can feel more comfortable opening up.

The ALEC method for mental health was created to help people start those tough conversations and get somewhere with them.  If you ask someone how they're doing and they say they aren't okay this framework will also help you guide them toward a better place. It's important that we acknowledge emotions aren't always easy to process or accept.

And although many of us think that a one time conversation should be enough to get over an issue, it's time to normalize talking about our feelings, labeling emotions and recognizing that sometimes, life is messy.

Signs Someone Might Be Struggling

You know your friends and family, and even your coworkers. When people seem more withdrawn, quieter, or just not themselves, there’s nothing wrong with asking, “Are you okay?”

Other signs you may want to look out for include turning down social invitations, no longer doing things they once enjoyed, talking negatively about themselves, and seeming more distant in their relationships.

It can feel like someone just switches off, and you may notice they’re not looking after themselves like they used to. Changes in their appearance, such as weight gain or lack of personal grooming, can indicate they’re struggling emotionally.

There are also some life events that make it a good time to check in with someone, like:

  • Going through a break-up or divorce
  • Dealing with increased levels of stress
  • Undergoing a major change in work or home life
  • Facing a health issue
  • Coping with grief
  • Experiencing financial hardship

How the ALEC Method Works

The ALEC method uses a four-step approach toward helping someone who may be struggling with their mental health:

  • Ask
  • Listen
  • Encourage Action
  • Check In

The first step is to simply build up the courage to ask. It may feel awkward, but not asking will feel much worse later on. People need to know others care about them, and someone who has been keeping their tough feelings and thoughts to themselves can feel hopeful again when a person asks, “Are you okay?”

Keep in mind that not everyone is going to immediately open up. It can be second nature for a lot of us to brush off our feelings, ignore our emotions, and not burden anyone else with how we're feeling.But it's important to know that just by asking, you're already helping.

When To Ask if Someone Is Okay

You can take advantage of a group activity, like exercising together, or when you’re spending time together one-on-one. Being in situations that naturally put you at ease are always best rather than suddenly putting someone on the spot.
If you’re worrying that you should mind your own business, this is natural. Getting over any embarrassment or awkwardness on your end could have a tremendous impact on the person you care about.

We all tell ourselves reasons why we shouldn’t get involved. But the times we’re afraid to reach out are usually when people need someone to take notice and ask them how they’re doing.

Listening vs. Responding

It can be really tempting to offer solutions to people's problems, but not everyone wants that.What's really important is that you just take time to listen to the person you're talking to.Give them space to express how they're feeling, and recognize that there may be some longer silences as they work through their thoughts.

“Holding space” is a mental health concept that refers to being fully present with someone in the moment. You aren’t offering solutions, giving them platitudes, or trying to help them “get over” whatever they’re going through. You’re creating emotional space to let them think, process, and heal at their own pace.

While it is okay to offer suggestions, it’s more important to recognize that people need to feel heard rather than directed. Just by listening, you affirm someone’s emotions and can take away the fear that their mental health is a burden to others.

Phrases like, “Thanks for letting me know that,” or “Thanks for sharing this with me, I know it’s not easy,” can also go a long way.

Encouraging Action

Instead of trying to fix someone's problems for them, it's actually much more helpful to encourage them to take action.Mental health struggles can make us feel hopeless, powerless, and at a complete loss on how to get better.Sometimes, we eat a reminder from people who care about us that we are capable.This might mean being encouraged to see a therapist, or being encouraged to do some self-care.

Remember, you’re here to support your loved one, not tell them how to live. The goal is to help them realize their own potential and strength. This strategy is always best when you can offer support. Instead of simply saying, “You should exercise more, it’s good for you,” why not ask, “Hey, do you want to walk the dog together?” or “Want to go for a bike ride?”

Offer to go to a coffee shop, watch a movie together, or have a BBQ. Difficult emotions and mental health struggles often detach us from what we love the most, and it can mean everything when a friend or family member offers to help you reconnect with something you’re too overwhelmed to do on your own.

Check-In

Of course, after having a conversation with somebody you love, it's important to not stop there.Check in with them every few days, and ask how they're doing.It's okay if some days are better than others.Healing is not linear.

People will have amazing days, and then sometimes, they'll seem to fall 10 paces back. This is fine. What matters is that you were consistently showing up, reminding them that you care, and letting them know that they always have someone that they can turn to.

Tips for Success

  • Accept that someone may not always want to talk. Ask again later.
  • Make sure you are in a good headspace before starting a tough conversation.
  • Be sure to set aside time you might need to be there for someone.
  • Remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers.
  • Choose a good time when you will both be comfortable to chat.
  • Consider having the conversation side-by-side (such as walking or driving) rather than face-to-face.
  • Arrange another time to talk if the person is busy the first time you ask.

Mental Health Resources in Canada

If you're looking for some free mental health resources that can help you help yourself or others, here are some great options.

Helping Yourself  

There is no shame in struggling. If you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it. It's okay not to have the answers or where to go from here. What matters is that you take the first step toward asking someone who you trust to help you take the next steps. You can also use the free resources above to connect with professional organizations. Consider using the ALEC method on yourself. Don't be afraid to check in and take action.

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This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Your specific circumstances should be discussed with a healthcare provider. All statements of opinion represent the writers' judgement at the time of publication and are subject to change. Phoenix and its affiliates provide no express or implied endorsements of third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products, or services.

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