5 Tips for Managing Difficult Conversations
As social workers, we are put in the position of having difficult, real conversations on a regular basis. And likely with time, these conversations become easier to navigate. For some of us, though, that comfort level sort of ebbs and flows, especially when it’s a new topic or new situation.
So today, I wanted to share 5 tips that I use for when I know it’s something new to me and when I’ve got that gut reaction of feeling a bit uneasy about how it’s likely to go. These aren’t tips regarding engagement or the first time you are meeting someone, this is really about this situations when you are having to share difficult news. Things like telling someone that you are having to detain their child, or that you are moving forward with referring to have their parental rights terminated, or letting someone know that their significant other has passed away, or that you will be moving forward with revoking their foster care license… You get the point, tough conversations that have to happen and that you might not normally have if you weren’t their social worker.
- Prepare. Clearly, this only works when you know that the difficult conversation is coming and you are the one who will be facilitating it, but really this can be in regards to any interaction. Take some time to think things through—what are the main points you really want to make? If time permits, write down those ideas, keeping them basic. If you know the person isn’t going to agree with you, also prepare some examples and factual information to support what you are stating. Be prepared for push-back and disagreement and know that it is okay to acknowledge the difference of opinions.
- Practice. Again this one requires a little bit of prep time. I typically have the conversation in my head several times before it actually happens (yet in my head it still seems to go better than in person!). Often for me, this “practice time” is in the car on the ride to meeting with the individual. This will help to make sure that you do get the main points across that you plan to make. In the moment, if it is tense, it’s natural for our communication to speed up or for the words we want not to come, but if you’ve thought through what you want to say (and you take some deep breaths to calm yourself), you are more likely to remain a clear communicator.
- During the conversation—Share what you need to and then listen, and be empathetic. Be open to the other person’s view and interpretation of the situation. Remember that perception is a good portion of reality—and so you and whomever you are having the difficult conversation with may have very different perceptions (and realities). You can both learn from one another if you take the time to listen. Sometimes I think we worry too much about proving that we are right and someone else is wrong. We are more likely to reach a place of agreement if we approach the conversation with empathy, acknowledging the feelings that someone else has, and allowing those to be expressed without judgment. Listening empathetically doesn’t equate agreement (and I think sometimes we forget that).
- Allow silence. We are so used to filling every moment with something that often silence makes us uncomfortable. But when having difficult conversations which may cause all kinds of emotions, allowing silence is sometimes key. You can use that time to refocus and center yourself—breathe and allow that time for processing and keeping yourself calm. Try counting in your head to three, while noticing your breath before responding–especially if you aren’t sure what to say or aren’t sure if you should or shouldn’t be giving a response.
- Decide on clear next steps. Almost always with difficult conversations, there is a “now what?” that needs to be answered. Sometimes that is as simple as “let’s both take some time to think through what we each shared and come back in x amount of time to decide next steps”. Other times, more specific next steps are warranted (especially if you are delivering bad news). I find it helpful to end a difficult conversation focusing on the future and giving the person you are talking with as clear of a picture as possible about what happens next.
There you have it, my 5 tips—what tips would you add? How have you developed more comfort in having difficult conversations? What advice would you give to someone who is struggling in this area?