'The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation'
by Jonathan Phelan, Evenhood ©2021
‘The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation’ is a non-fiction “holy grail” story. It reveals the author’s efforts to find a way to overcome his mental wellbeing challenges following a child bereavement; and it shares the discoveries he made with his readers so that they can learn from his experience. In the book, the author asks the reader to take-on the role of his boss, from whom he asks for support for his wellbeing. By enabling author and reader to adopt the roles of “speaker” and “listener”, the book provides an experiential, conversational journey of learning.
After briefly telling his story of a child bereavement, post-traumatic stress and depression the author asks the reader how they feel as a listener. The book then examines how conversations like this are emotional, negative and medically complex. They often leave the listener feeling a frustrated sense of responsibility - wanting to help, but not being sure how to. Such conversations explain why most people end up not getting the support they need. With this introduction in place, the reader comprehends the problem that drove the author to search for his holy grail.
The author shares the two discoveries he made. The first comes from a film called ‘The Fisher King’ in which mad Parry interacts with confident, alpha male Jack. Despite his boss-like confidence, Jack makes a mess of helping Parry by offering money, advice and coaching. Parry ends up having to teach Jack how to help. He does this by telling Jack the story of the fisher king, in which the king is saved by a fool who simply asks, “What ails you; my friend?” From this, the reader learns that support for mental wellbeing doesn’t come from giving advice, opinions and insights. Instead, help for mental wellbeing comes from simply listening, non-judgementally and focusing on the things that the listener CAN help with.
This discovery in turn gives rise to a follow-on question. What is it that a listener CAN help with? To answer this question, the reader is invited to explore the meaning of ‘resilience’ and to engage with a thought experiment about a resilient animal that is removed from its natural environment and placed in a harsh environment. Saving the animal from its struggles simply involves moving it to a more comfortable environment; and that’s far easier than helping it through the complex process of evolving to cope with its new harsh environment. From this, the reader learns that wellbeing is not just about the mind, it’s about the environment too. In the right environment, people can thrive. In more difficult environments, people struggle.
“This is where we get our hands on the Holy Grail for the first time. If I need your help as my boss for my mental wellbeing, perhaps we could simply have a conversation about the environment that I experienced today and how it impacted my wellbeing. Then we could talk about how, if my environment was different, maybe my wellbeing would improve.”
(page 71 ‘The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation’)
With these discoveries now in place, anyone can be a mental wellbeing expert. By shifting the conversation from the complexities of the mind to the environment; any boss, friend, partner, tutor, teacher or colleague can more easily act to help create an environment that supports positive wellbeing in others. And any individual can take steps to create a supportive environment for themselves.
Next, the author then shares a detailed, actionable and illustrated framework to support the reader. This framework provides guidance on the meaning of resilience. It encourages and enables the reader to mindfully reflect on their daily environment and identify the things in that environment that have the biggest impact on their wellbeing. Finally, it offers the reader a range of choices they can make to help them manage their wellbeing, strengthen their resilience and have mentally healthy conversations.
With a discovery this profound, the author set out to share his findings with others. Launching a not-for-profit company called Evenhood he shares his story in wellbeing talks, resilience training and wellbeing coaching. Through this, his story and discoveries have reached over 6,000 people. ‘The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation’ represents the author’s desire to share that story with others so that they too can find a better way to give and get support for wellbeing.