Tips for coping with difficult conversations

    Practical advice from a Community Care Inform guide on how to approach difficult conversations

    Discussing about her problems
    Photo: bnenin/AdobeStock

    This article is published as part of Community Care’s Choose Social Work Campaign, to support students and newly-qualified social workers with areas of practice they might find challenging. It presents practice tips from Community Care Inform Adults’ guide to a strengths-based approach to difficult conversations.

    The full guide considers situations where challenging conversations might arise and provides ideas for coping with these using strengths-based practice. Inform Adults subscribers can access the full content here.

    The guide is written by Mel Gray and Leanne Schubert from the University of Newcastle, Australia.

    Taking a strengths-based approach to practice does not exclude the need to engage in difficult conversations. These may arise at any point when conducting needs assessments but are commonly found when:

    • The final decision is not what the person, their family or carer were hoping for, and they respond in anger or distress.
    • There is a personality clash between the social worker and the person being assessed, a family member or carer.
    • The person being assessed, a family member or carer has a grievance or has made a complaint about the social worker or the decision made regarding their care.
    • The person being assessed, a family member or carer engages in aggressive behaviour.
    • The Care Act 2014 or Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 (SSWBA) require the social worker to include the adult, their carer, someone else they nominate or an independent advocate in the assessment process. Having a number of people involved could increase the potential for differences of opinion and conflict, which leads to difficult conversations.
    • The person being assessed experiences emerging impairments, such as short-term memory loss or a mental health concern. In these circumstances, it becomes particularly important to have appropriate assessments in place and to listen carefully to family or carers.

    If you know there is a difficult conversation to facilitate on the horizon, prepare for it by:

    • Considering the key points you want to communicate and be heard. Determine what you might say and how you might say it.
    • Making a plan of the main points you need to convey. If you have time, jot these ideas down. This will help you remember critical information that needs to be conveyed, even in the heat of the moment should tensions flare.
    • Keeping your ideas simple.
    • Identifying the strengths the person holds that you might highlight in this conversation and having some ideas about how they might draw on these strengths to move through and beyond the difficult conversation.

    Set a clear framework for the conversation:

    • Be clear with the person about the purpose of the conversation and what you hope to achieve by the end of it.
    • Enter the conversation with some ideas about possible solutions that draw on that individual’s strengths which were identified in the assessment.

    Be prepared for disagreement:

    • If you expect the person to disagree with you, be prepared with facts and alternative suggestions that might open up solutions to the problems the person perceives. Gather available evidence that supports what you are putting to the person that you can share with them (eg from independent assessments or observations in your case notes).
    • Acknowledge differences of opinion openly and offer gestures of support.
    • Be diplomatic.

    Remember to use basic interpersonal skills:

    • Listen, then listen some more.
    • Acknowledge feelings as they arise. Allow their expression without judgment.
    • Be empathic. Imagine what it’s like to be in this person’s shoes. Respond accordingly.
    • Allow space for silence so emotions can be expressed and present.
    • Avoid personalising any negative behaviours you perceive, and maintain your objectivity.
    • Keep a broad perspective to help prevent misunderstandings.
    • Clarify uncertainties within any communication to avoid misinterpretation.
    • If the opportunity arises, and it feels appropriate, use humour to lighten the mood. Used well, this can help diffuse tense situations.
    • Remain open to the other person’s view and interpretation of the situation.

    Closing the conversation:

    • Summarise the problem, issue or discussion and what has been agreed.
    • Provide an explanation as to why these agreements are satisfactory for all parties.
    • Agree on who should do what next and if there will be a follow-up.

    Regardless of their beginning point, many difficult conversations reach the point of ‘what next’ or ‘what now’. It can be helpful to end a difficult conversation by focusing on the future and providing a clear picture of what happens next for the person or what other possibilities might be explored.

    If you have a Community Care Inform Adults licence, log in to access the full guide and read more ideas for coping with difficult conversations using strengths-based practice as well as examples of difficult conversations that might emerge.

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