5 ways to spot someone struggling, and what to do

Very often we tend to notice that someone has a problem before they have recognised it, or are even willing to do anything.

How do we do that?

Our unconscious (that part of the brain that stores everything, our memories, our emotions and all the body processes done without us having to think about them all the time) is always watching for subtle changes in our environment or, in this case, others to ensure we are safe from danger.

This article is about recognising consciously what those subtle changes might be and then in the second part of the article a guide to what you could do.

Here are just some things to observe:

1. Lack of self-care
Rapid changes in weight either gaining or losing it
Looking haggard or dishevelled
Dark rings around the eyes due to sleep issues perhaps
No longer shaving or putting on make-up.

2. Normal behaviours becoming exaggerated
Drinking more
Eating more
Exercising excessively
More outgoing/introverted
Making BIG decisions that are out of character
Becoming more controlling or allowing things to slip
Displaying risk-taking behaviours such as alcohol or drug use.

3. Lost interest in their world
Turning their video off in meetings
Less engagement
Reduced social interaction
Withdrawing from work or life.

4. Changes in their mental wellbeing
Struggling to process information
Overthinking instructions
Highly critical of others or self
More negative language (I can’t, I don’t, I shouldn’t etc)
Denial – I’m OK, I’m fine, I’m all right – but not backed up by body language or tone of voice.

5. Mood changes
Short temper
Sadness & quiet
Mood swings
Hopelessness or helplessness.

There are others, but basically you are watching for changes to a person’s behaviours, character, moods or habits that will let you know whether a conversation might be useful.

How to approach the difficult conversation

When we become aware of someone who is struggling, we very often don’t know what to do for the best and tend to do what works for us.

This is a mistake as it may not be what they need – so how do you handle it?


1. What sort of relationship do you have with the person?
a. If they are likely to feel intimidated by you (if you are the boss), you may have to leave the conversation until their work is being affected. Alternatively, If you are one of those forward organisations/managers, bring it up in your next 1:1.
b. If you are used to having informal conversations then this would be a good opportunity to use one of those
2. Stop and reflect on what it is you want to achieve.
a. Is it better work performance? This may need to come secondary to finding out what is going on
b. Is it genuine concern for their wellbeing
c. Something else
3. Think about somewhere that you can talk freely and that is neutral space. It will help put both of you at ease. Somewhere that person feels comfortable to open up undisturbed and away from others
4. Remember confidentiality is key in these instances
5. Please know that a person cannot be cognitive/logical when they are in emotional space. Emotions will trump every time because this is the brains response called Fight, Flight or Freeze and is about keeping them safe

The conversation

A useful acronym to remember is LEAP when having these difficult conversations.

• Listen
• Empathise
• Ask
• Probe further if possible

LISTEN – and be non-judgemental – make sure that you are primarily in ‘listening’ mode only asking questions to help THEM work through what it is they need to work through.

EMPATHISE – empathy may not be your thing, but the first thing you could do is imagine how you might feel if you were in their shoes. And if this doesn’t work endeavour to show empathy through listening. You can do this by repeating the last few words of a sentence at natural breaks in the conversation. For example, I sense you [are feeling life is getting you down]; I am hearing that [you are not appreciated]; I get the feeling that [you are deeply unhappy]. The words in italics are you ‘interpreting’ and feeding back to them what you heard, sensed, saw, and the words in brackets are just examples of what they might say.

This is powerful stuff, so expect silences and allow them this space to be whatever it is they need to be knowing that they are OK. This may be one of the most difficult things for you to do as a manager, friend or family member, but if you have a cup of coffee you can focus on that. Or, if you have finished it, explain you will just step away to get another one or some water. This gives them some space for reflection.

ASK – open ended questions, but only occasionally as your role is to listen and allow them to talk. Asking questions is great for encouraging them to talk, but also great for demonstrating empathy (you have heard them). Focus on WHAT and HOW questions.

Never use the WHY question as it is judgemental, it is questioning what is going on for them, indicating somehow that they are less than. They might say something that makes no sense to you (remember you cannot be cognitive and emotional at the same time). So gently asking them the what and the how of their last statement gives them a chance to explore it more.

WHEN can also be a difficult question to ask. Remember when emotional it can be challenging to think and provide dates and timescales, it is just too challenging. Remember your role is not about ‘fixing’ them – they have to do that.

PROBE – is picking out what you think are key areas (watch for clues around reluctant or perhaps a flicker of something positive and ask, perhaps “What is that you were experiencing then?” or “I noticed that something happened then, what is that about?”

Their body language will guide you to where it might be appropriate to probe further, but be kind to you and them, this is a skill that can take some time to develop.

As you come to the end of the conversation, either because they have had enough, or you have time limited it, think about summarising what you heard at a very high level in one or two sentences, again to reflect back at them what you heard.. “I can sense you have a lot going on right now’; I can feel that you are very upset about x”.

And then end with the following question “What do you need from me/the business right now that could help?” It provides a gentle transition back into reality from where they may be. It enables them to express what it is they want and it may help you to feel that you are doing something constructive. Whether you can do it or not of course is a different question, but release them by saying, ‘let me see what I can do’, or ‘I might not be able to do that, but let me think on it.’ Never a no, as they are not in the right space to hear that.


These conversations are not always easy, particularly when you are not used to them. So be kind to yourself. As long as you are doing it with a good heart and good intent, the other person will ‘know’ at an unconscious level. It maybe that you are not the right person for the conversation, and that is OK, so perhaps encourage them to speak to someone they feel they can trust.

And of course they may just not be ready to talk or work on whatever it is going on for them; in those cases, just let them know that you are there. Whatever is going on is not about you (even if they may think that – ask me and I will explain!).

Remember people do not like to ask for help for a variety of reasons, they are not ready, because they feel stupid, weak, needy or incompetent. Allow them to know that whatever is going on is OK and that if not you, that there are various agencies who can help.

You have got this.

Kim Searle, Emotional Mastery.


Leave a Reply

Receive updates from Ethical Reading

Do you want to keep up to date with the latest developments at Ethical Reading?

Sign up for regular news and updates by filling in the form below.