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Tips on having and managing difficult conversations

19 November 2019

Samaritans has over 65 years of expertise when it comes to listening. When people join us as volunteers, we teach them to “actively listen” using techniques such as open questions, reflection, summarising, to name a few.

It’s amazing just how many people who do train with us say that not only do these skills benefit their volunteering, but they begin to see an impact in their work and family life too. We believe that the skills we teach are life skills; not ones just specific to Samaritans volunteers but ones that stand you in good stead for most situations in life. This includes having difficult conversations.

A difficult conversation is something none of us relish, however having a few tools and techniques to help you navigate that conversation can make a world of difference. Our volunteers never know who they will pick the phone up to, answer the door to, or read a text or email from. The same can be said for some of our staff teams who might be public facing, such as our media, social media and comms teams who sometimes need to deal with situations where they face someone being upset or perhaps aggressive and angry.

The foundation of all our listening skills is Samaritans’ Listening Wheel (above). Each segment can be used in any conversation to help it flow, encourage someone to open up, diffuse anger, calm distress and to show the person we are talking to that we are really listening to them.

A key technique is to try to stay calm and remember that you are not responsible for the other person’s actions – whatever the situation or scenario they are presented with.

If they are very angry, perhaps even shouting and swearing, it’s best not to interrupt them initially, but to allow them to let off steam. Unless they are abusive towards you, in which case you are perfectly within your right to end that conversation.

Giving someone the time and space to vent their feelings often leads to being able to have a much calmer conversation. Silence is a very powerful tool. By not trying to interrupt – or question – you are not feeding their anger and eventually they will realise that you are not responding and so they stop. A good thing here is to react and empathise with them because it acknowledges that you have heard how they feel and are listening to them. Something as simple as “I’m really sorry to hear that, it sounds like a very difficult situation” can help the conversation open up and allow you to follow up with a more open question about what they feel their options are. For example, asking them “what would you like to change?” or “what would you like to do?”

When someone is very distressed, it can be hard for them to express exactly what is going on or how they feel. Open questions can be a useful aid here, for example asking, “what’s happened to make you get in touch?”, “How can I best support or help you?”. Giving reassurance here is also key; you might say to someone to take their time, let them know that you’re still there whenever they are ready. It means you keep a human connection and that can be just what’s needed to encourage someone to talk.

One last piece of guidance would be that, if you have had a difficult conversation, talk to someone else about it. Don’t bottle it up. At Samaritans we talk to our fellow Samaritan on duty after every contact and we have a Leader for every shift that we have access to during and after to debrief to if we need to. We often don’t recognise the impact on ourselves when we have a difficult conversation but, just like the person we have been speaking to initially, we also need to express our thoughts and feelings so that we can stay resilient and feel able to cope with the next conversation that comes along.

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Wellbeing guide for comms professionals.

Lucia Capobianco

senior L & D officer, Samaritans

Lucia Capobianco is a Senior L&D Officer with Samaritans. She has worked for the Central Office of Samaritans for 13 years and has been part of various projects during that time including the change programme, There for Everyone which includes a refresh of Samaritans initial training offering to new volunteers; the Network Rail partnership working to reduce suicide on the railways; and the Chad Varah Appeal. Lucia has also been a listening volunteer with her local Samaritans branch for 10 years.