How to start a difficult conversation

If you’re worried about someone and don’t know how to tackle it, there are some things you can do to help them open up.

If you're worried about someone try to get them to talk to you.

  • Often people want to talk, but wait until someone asks how they are. Try asking open questions, like 'What about happened about...', 'Tell me about...', 'How do you feel about...'
  • Repeat back what they say to show you understand, and ask more questions.
  • Focus on your friend's feelings instead of trying to solve the problem - it can be of more help and shows you care.
  • Respect what they tell you. Sometimes it's easy to want to try and fix a person's problems, or give them advice. Let them make their own decisions.
     

How do I start a conversation with someone I’m concerned about?

You might feel that you don't know how to help someone, because you don't know what to tell them or how to solve their problems.

You don’t need to be an expert. In fact, sometimes people who think they have the answers to a problem are less helpful.

Don’t forget that every person is different, so that what worked for one will not always work for another.

Find a good time and place

Think about where and when to have the conversation before you start.

Choose somewhere where the other person feels comfortable and has time to talk.

Ask gentle questions, and listen with care

You might feel that you don't know how to help someone, because you don't know what to tell them. But you shouldn't tell them anything. Telling doesn't help.

The best way to help is to ask questions. That way you leave the other person in control. By asking questions, the person you are talking with finds his or her own answers. 

The more open the question the better

Questions that help someone talk through their problems instead of  saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are the most useful. Questions like:

  • When – 'When did you realise?'
  • Where – 'Where did that happen?'
  • What – 'What else happened?'
  • How – 'How did that feel?'
  • Why – be careful with this one as it can make someone defensive. ‘What made you choose that’ or ‘What were you thinking about at the time’ are more effective.

At Samaritans, we call this style of conversation active listening.

Find out how they feel

Don’t forget to ask how this person is feeling. Sometimes people will talk you through all the facts of what happened, why it happened and what actions they are thinking of taking, but never say how they actually feel.

Revealing your innermost emotions - anger, sadness, fear, hope, jealously, despair and so on – can be a huge relief. It sometimes also give clues about what the person is really most worried about.

Check they know where to get help

If someone has been feeling low for some time it is probably a good idea that they get some support, whether it is through talking to someone like a counsellor or getting some practical help.

Useful questions you might ask them include:

  • ‘Have you talked to anyone else about this?’
  • ‘Would you like to get some help?’
  • ‘Would you like me to come with you?’

Or, for someone who is reluctant to get help:

  • ‘Do you have someone you trust you can go to?’
  • ‘If it helps, you can talk to me any time.’

You can also suggest to your friend that the following sources of help may be useful:

Respect what they tell you, don’t pressure them

If they don’t want help, don’t push them. Sometimes it’s easy to want to try and fix a person’s problems, or give them advice.

It’s usually better for people to make their own decisions. Help them think of all the options, but leave the choice to them.

Being there for them in other ways, like through socialising or helping with practical things, can also be a great source of support.

If you say the wrong thing, don’t panic

There is no perfect way to handle a difficult conversation, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it didn’t go as well as you had hoped. 

If you feel able to, put things right: “Last week I said … and I realise now that was insensitive so I’m sorry. What I meant to say was …”

Show you understand

Ask follow-up questions and repeat back the key things your friend has told you, using phrases like ‘So you’re saying…’, ‘So you think…’.

Look after yourself, and talk to someone too

Hearing someone else’s worries or problems can affect you too. Take time for yourself to do the things you enjoy, and if you need to talk, find somebody you trust to confide in.

If you promised not to tell anyone else, you can call us, and we’ll keep it private.

Don’t take on so much of other peoples’ problems that you yourself start feeling depressed.