What should I say…? Advice for Starting Difficult Conversations

Whether you are a safeguarding practitioner or a concerned friend or family member, it can be challenging to know how to tell someone you are concerned about them.

In this blog we aim to provide practical advice to enable you to feel more confident in starting conversations about safeguarding concerns.

It is important to note that all situations, and all individuals, are different. Thus, the information below aims to provide general guidance about beginning difficult conversations. If you believe a person is in immediate danger, you should call 999.

Set up a time to talk

Try to find a time when you can speak to the person in a private, safe place, free from interruptions. Sometimes, this may be best done in-person, although this will not be everyone’s preference. Consider how the person prefers to communicate. Is this over the phone, through email or text or face-to-face. Sometimes people find it easier to speak whilst doing an activity, it might be helpful to set up a time to go for a walk where you can start the conversation.

Ask open questions

Start the conversation by asking open questions (where the person cannot provide a yes or no answer). This may help them provide more detail or raise concerns themselves. For instance, you could ask:

  • How are you getting on at work?
  • What is living with XXX person like? How are things at home?
  • How are you finding your exercise group/training?

Explain why you’re asking

The person may become defensive or hostile about why you are asking these questions. If so, it is important to be honest with them and share your concerns.

Be specific, if you can, about the times you were worried about them. For instance, you could say ‘I saw you crying during your lunchbreak after the meeting with your manager’. Let them know that no-one should feel this way at work and tell them that you are here to listen to them if they wish to talk about it.

Alternatively, you may be concerned about an incident with a family member or partner. To address this sensitive issue, you could refer to a similar incident that has been shown on a TV programme you both watch. For instance, ‘I saw the storyline on EastEnders about XXX person shouting at their partner. It made me think about the way XXX person speaks to you and I am worried about your safety/wellbeing. How do you feel when they speak to you like that?

Listening is Key

The person may not respond straight away, or they may deny the abuse and attempt to shut-down the conversation.

Let them know that you are not there to judge them, but to listen to them. Tell them that you empathise with how difficult it must be to speak about these issues. Reassure them that you will be there to listen and support them when they need to.

Be prepared to have more than one conversation

The first time you approach this topic, the person may communicate very little. What is important is that you have started the conversation. Be prepared to revisit the conversation at a later date. You could set-up a time to go for a coffee a week later.

You could then ask them again how things are at home/work etc? Or you may want to ask them if they have thought about what you said before, and if they would like to share anything with you.

Offer to support them to access help

The person may feel more comfortable talking to someone they do not know about their experience. You could write down the contact details for an organisation that can help and give this to the person you are concerned about. If texting this information to someone could put them at risk, write this information down on a piece of paper, or provide this information to them verbally. Use our directory to learn about organisations that offer support and guidance.

You can also encourage them to report the harm and abuse they are subjected to. This could be to the police, their local Safeguarding Adults Social Care Team, a member of HR or a senior staff member within their organisation. You could offer to go with them to report the abuse, or work with them as they decide what to say. It may be helpful if they write down their experiences and what happened.

If the abuse is happening within an organisation, it may be helpful to find out if the organisation has a safeguarding policy or designated safeguarding lead.

You can also contact organisations yourself to discuss your concerns and find out how best to offer support.

Other Sources of Information

There are various guides providing information about how to start difficult conversations if you are worried someone may be at risk of harm and abuse.

  • Age UK have produced information about how to have a conversation about sensitive topics.
  • NSPCC has produced guidance for parents and carers about having difficult conversations with children and young people.
  • The Ann Craft Trust and the Marie Collins Foundation have collaborated to produce a guide for parents and carers, and a guide for professionals who are concerned about young people at risk of online abuse.
  • Open the Door have published advice about starting conversations about domestic abuse.
  • The Ann Craft Trust have produced a range of case studies to enable you to reflect on how you would respond to people who may be at risk in different contexts. These case studies could help to initiate discussions about safeguarding in your organisation.