As a service provider for nearly 20 years in the beauty business, I can't tell you how many conversations I've had, it's got to be in the hundreds of thousands by now, and some of them have felt pretty uncomfortable.
I've had a guest cry as she told me about her husband's porn addiction, and another said she was devastated and in extreme debt after her 12th invitro was unsuccessful. There have been numerous accounts of miscarriages, deaths, divorces and copious stories of spousal and substance abuse; I've even had to call the police on a client (not my own) after they refused to leave when they showed up too intoxicated to get their service done and physically assaulted other clients and staff.
And after speaking to hundreds of hairstylists as a psychological safety coach, I know this is more the norm than most people realize; the term "hairapist" lives on for a reason. But unfortunately, most beauty professionals or service providers have never been trained to deal with these sensitive subjects. Still, they are assuming therapist-like roles or placed in therapist-like positions, especially after the pandemic when mental illness and abuse are at an all-time high.
Let's take a look at why.
According to this article in Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/insight-is-2020/201207/the-psychology-hair-salons-stylists-therapy-free it's a combination of our non-confrontational body positioning and language, that they aren't expecting to be held accountable like they would be in therapy, we are "fun" and, although not mentioned in this article but highly relevant, we touch people! The vulnerability and closeness linked to physical touch are left to only a few professions and shouldn't be taken lightly.
On top of these, many more service providers are currently working from private suites, and I know from personal experience that conversations tend to go deeper when there is no one around (this also puts us at greater risk, but that's for another post).
But none of this qualifies us to advise on areas of extreme human suffering.
I by no means think that we need a degree to talk about these issues; on the contrary, I believe that society would be better if we knew how to approach them. I feel strongly that this is needed to reduce said suffering. I titled this "stop having uncomfortable conversations," but I want to change it to let's get comfortable with them instead.
Here are some helpful suggestions to get more comfortable or to make them safer:
1) You must be emotionally stable to get to a place where you can have these conversations.
Think about it; a therapist has had a minimum of four years of training to not only know what to say and how to say it but also how to be objective. Objectivity is a skill, and most hairstylists don't swing that way. We are...prepare yourself for a gross generalization... artists and "feelers" and often absorb the energy (emotions are referred to as energy in motion ((E-motion)) in the reiki and spiritual world).
Brene Brown says, in her latest book Atlas Of The Heart, that empathy has two elements: "cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy, sometimes called perspective taking or mentalizing, is the ability to recognize and understand another person's emotions. Affective empathy, often called experience sharing, is one's emotional attunement with another person's experience."
But, so often, beauty professionals don't just cognitively recognize another's emotional pain or get attuned with another's experience; we straight out put on their shoes and run a marathon and wonder why we're tired!
Instead, we lean towards being hyper-empathetic. Hyper-empathy syndrome, according to the UK Therapy Guide, occurs when you are too in tune with other people's emotions and mirror them to the same intensity. In other words, you care too much. People with hyper-empathy may find it hard to regulate their emotions and may tend to pick up on negative feelings.
Side note: That one sentence makes me feel both seen and attacked, anyone else?
This article is not about self-diagnosing; I share this piece about empathy because it has real implications. Our well-being matters most, and by having sensitive, emotionally taxing, or uncomfortable conversations, we risk compassion fatigue and even burnout the more often it happens, especially if we are already stressed with our own "stuff."
So before you go down that road with clients, please take your well-being and health into consideration and be sure that you have the emotional energy and fortitude to take the journey with them because, as well-meaning as it is, the world doesn't need another unwell soul (think about trying to save someone from the side of a mountain only to get stuck yourself).
If you recognize that you need help with your well-being, check other my other blogs https://www.wavesociety.ca/post/improve-your-mental-well-being-in-5-minutes-a-day and https://www.wavesociety.ca/post/5-tips-to-help-you-find-joy.
2) Educate yourself.
Listening skills are an essential aspect of making conversations more comfortable. They extend to all areas of life and all relationships. You can find excellent skills and courses through a quick google search, but knowledge is not power unless applied, so you must practice and reflect.
The best thing I've ever done to help me better support my clients (and friends) going through tough times or mental illness was getting my mental health first aid certification. This course gave me the confidence to know what to say to guests when they open up. Before, I would fumble trying to find the best words, sometimes I would overstep my abilities (which could have done more harm than good), and I wouldn't know what to do next (Like "should I start taking appointments for hairapy sessions to be sure that they're ok?"). This program gave me all the tools I needed to start and end the conversation knowing that I did all I could to help.
If you are not a Mental Health First Aider or it's been a while, and you'd like to refresh (and you're Canadian), there's a virtual mental health first aid course specifically for beauty professionals coming up in May; here's the link for more details https://www.alisonbutler.ca/product-page/mental-health-first-aid-salon-industry If you're reading this past the date or are outside of Canada, this program or it's equivalent are offered around the world through various sources, a quick google search will help.
And if you would like to take it a step further and help with suicide prevention, the LivingWorks Assist program is offered worldwide and is the leading suicide prevention program https://www.livingworks.net/asist.
Each of these courses, although not a necessity, will provide you with the confidence you will need to be comfortable talking about emotionally "heavy" topics.
3) Have firm boundaries.
The Oxford Dictionary says that a boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area. In the case of a conversation with a guest, it's where your emotions end and others begin.
Suppose you are clear about the sensations and stories in your body and mind. In that case, you'll have a greater awareness of what may be happening with the other person and be more aware of when you're venturing outside your emotional or psychological comfort zone.
This is important because, as mentioned above, stretching outside of what we're comfortable with psychologically is very similar to pushing your muscles further than what they're capable of, welcoming injury. In this case, the damage is secondary trauma (another name for compassion fatigue).
Sometimes, in our eagerness to help, we strain ourselves; as I've already stated, that isn't helpful. I also want to add that it's my job to take care of my boundaries, and it's yours to express your own. No one else can do that for us, and we are the only ones to blame when they've been crossed (except in the case of abuse, in which case, a third party, such as law enforcement, must be involved.)
A common way in which we overstep boundaries is when we place others' emotions above our own. This happens when we're afraid to state when we want to stop a conversation but don't want to upset them further, so we keep going. This is not helpful as the most significant part of recovery (in this case, we are talking about mental illness, substance abuse and emotional trauma) is taking responsibility for a person's own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Unfortunately, no one can do it for us; as a caring service provider, our only role is to listen to the capacity that we can without personal "injury."
There is also a segment on boundaries and difficult conversations in Psychologically Safe Service, a program I offer to small service-based businesses and service providers. You can check out the details here: https://www.wavesociety.ca/psychologicallysafeservice
and keep your eye out for the virtual, self-paced course coming in late 2023.
4) Be compassionate.
Being compassionate is the most important way to support others and make them and the discussion more comfortable.
When you can stay in touch with the emotions of love and caring and remain open and curious (instead of thinking ahead to respond, making assumptions or judging), you can rest easy as this connection will make them feel supported.
We all want to be seen and accepted, and if we could be mindful of doing that throughout our services, we'll have done all we need to do as service providers and caring human beings.
Difficult conversations are only tricky when we don't know how to respond. These are just a few ways to make your guests and yourself more comfortable during services.
For more information on having difficult conversations, staying psychologically safe, or having me in your organization, contact me at https://www.wavesociety.ca/contact-8
Psychological Safety and Well-Being Coach,