Difficult Conversations – some initial thoughts

When it comes to conversations in Social Work practice, particularly difficult ones, we have to start with the question “What are we trying to achieve?” What is the problem we are trying to overcome? Often, I’d suggest, it’s the (almost) impossible. We are trying to have enlightening, helpful conversations, often with difficult messages to deliver, with people who may be in denial about their world and the world out there. In this environment we’re meant to try and do this without aggravating anyone! Without making the conversation difficult and challenging.

So, let’s start by cutting ourselves some slack and acknowledging that sometimes when things go wrong there’s often not a lot we could have done. As I say frequently, the Stoic Philosophers say we can’t control everything so we shouldn’t set our happiness and our view of how well we did on such things. But we must try to predict as much as we can… because conflict – and difficult conversations – are stress inducing – for us and for the other people involved. Best avoided if possible. If not avoidable then managed well.

And it’s not just with service users, parents, or children. It’s sometimes with other professionals and sometimes with our own colleagues in our own teams.

We are involved in deliberate conversations. We need to involve ourselves in listening – but when tense maybe we don’t listen effectively.

Why is Rumi the best-selling poet in the US? - BBC Culture

There is a way between voice and presence

where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens.

With wandering talk it closes.

RUMI (13th-century Persian poet)

What’s going on when we are involved in dialogue, conflict, and difficulty? What are the underpinning things that help us avoid this in the first place or navigate through it? Because while the best form of defence is to avoid the conflict in the first place, we have to acknowledge that conflict is, at some point, inevitable.

Some things to bear in mind

Aristotle's Contributions in Mathematics – StudiousGuy

There’s always a philosopher, often Greek, that we can turn to and in this instance, I turn to Aristotle’s ‘Modes of Persuasion’. Often in our conversations we are trying to persuade – or at least put forward a position that we want the other person to consider – and Aristotle says there are three crucial things to engage…. Ethos, Pathos and Logos


Ethos – your ethics. The question here in the mind of the other person is can you be trusted.  The starting point for the individual might be that you can’t be. The reality is that difficult conversations are easier when there is a relationship of trust there. You need to start by building that relationship. It sounds obvious really but in busy practice may be difficult and may not get the attention it deserves.

Trust isn’t about liking each other or what each other is saying it’s about a functional relationship that permits disagreement or conflicting opinion. It also needs to allow, particularly for Social Workers, given the perceived (if not real) position of power we often find ourselves in – balance. Balance of power

A social contract is established in the very early parts of an interaction based on previous knowledge of each other if we have it, or ideas about each other if we don’t have specific knowledge. If you don’t have a relationship with the person, you are likely to be having the relationship the previous Social Worker had. You need to ask, ‘What’s your relationship like with the person – where are you at with them?’ ‘What’s the relationship of the person with social work?’ Overcoming any obstacles that this places in our way by how we communicate is the cornerstone, I’d argue, of social work practice. There is nothing more important. So whatever we discover in thinking about those two questions demands we do something about it – at least have an awareness

Listening is crucial. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care – so the famous saying goes. Build rapport. Assume the other person will be nervous or apprehensive about you being there. Having a ‘professional’ involved in your life brings up all sorts of fears and tensions – don’t add to them. Being honest about difficult things is important – but we need to think about how we frame what we have to say.


Pathos is the emotional content of any conversation or relationship we find ourselves in. There is always an emotional content to what we do. Emotional Intelligence is key. We must exhibit emotional control. It’s our responsibility to do so and not expect the same in return. We must manage the emotions of others and that starts with managing our own.

Managing our emotions successfully stifle’s impulsiveness – so it mediates our response – and helps us perform effectively. Recognising emotions in others and knowing how to manage them is a fundamental skill. The problem with this skill is it’s usually forged in the ‘heat of the fire’ rather than been thought about and reflected on before action and after action. What is going to trigger the persons emotions? What emotion? What will I do about it to avoid it or manage it?

Never forget emotions are contagious and easily escalate.


Finally, Logos – Logic. What we are saying needs to be logical. We need to engage our thinking brain. This relies on us managing our emotional brain (see above!). We need to articulate this logic in a way that the other person can understand. Think clearly before, and during, and after the conversation. Empathise. Persuade. Any conversation is two people in a dialogue trying to find the truth – an agreed truth. A logical truth. Only then can things move forward.

The conversation must connect to how people understand things. We must find the other persons understanding of the thing, know ours, and connect the two. Often when you do this you find people are more ‘movable’ (as you’ve acknowledged their truth) and the ‘truths’ are not as far apart as they appear. There will be some commonality.

Often when we are discussing ‘truths’ like this in practice we need to keep people talking (and we need to keep reflecting) because then we can Develop Discrepancies (there’s or ours).

Developing discrepancies (a feature of motivational interviewing – read about it here) creates a gap between where the person has been (or currently is) and where they want to be. We can use The Columbo Method here. It’s a simple yet clever and cunning way to handle a potential contradiction in what you are being told. Remember the television show Columbo, starring Peter Falk? The fictional Columbo was a detective who solved murder mysteries – hugely popular in the 1970’s. He was a humble and unassuming character who had the ability to get anyone to tell him anything, despite their initial resistance – very disarming. When someone said something to Columbo that was conflicting or inconsistent, he would rub his head and say, “I noticed yesterday you said one thing, and now you are saying something else. I’m confused.” He would say things like, “Could you clarify this?” or “Help me understand.” Columbo did not accuse those he was questioning. By taking the responsibility for his confusion, he disarmed the other person — who then would slowly feel comfortable telling him the things he needed to know to solve the crime. The Columbo Method is to present the facts that appear to conflict, give the person the benefit of the doubt, and then ask questions for clarification. We need to look in this ‘mirror’ ourselves as well. Are we making assumptions that contradict what we are trying to achieve or that are at odds with our professional values.

Ethos – Pathos – Logos

Ethics – Emotions – Logic

Real discussion creates understanding rather than division.

This is the first of 3 articles in this series

The others are at these links

Difficult Conversations – Advanced Skills

Difficult Conversations – Dealing with anger

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