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How to have an open conversation

Talking about sensitive subjects can be difficult for everyone involved. When we feel uncomfortable, it's all too easy to come off sounding abrupt or accusatory.

We've spoken to family, friends and professionals who work with people facing challenges in later life to find out how they go about having these conversations. We hope that the tips below help you do this. 

Things to consider

If the person you're worried about is a family member, it's likely there'll be other people involved too – like siblings, parents or children. Family relationships can be complicated. We don't always agree with each other, or might have very different views on the same person or situation. So you might find you need to have some important conversations with other people as well as the person you're worried about.

1. Don’t start by problem-solving

Try to avoid starting your conversations by saying what you think needs to happen. Instead, give yourself time to really hear what the other person is saying, and let them know that you're listening and want to hear their side of the story.

"I never start with the problem first. I always ask 'How are things? How are things at home?'" 

Professional working with older people

2. Ask open questions

Open-ended questions (ones you can’t answer with yes or no) are usually better if you’re hoping to get more detailed answers from someone.

So instead of asking "Do you think you’re eating enough?", you could ask "What did you have to eat yesterday?" or "What are some of your favourite meals to cook?"

If the person you're talking to gets irritated or defensive, you might need to prepare yourself for some more hostile answers: "What's that to got do with you?" or "Why are you criticising me?" for example.

Keep calm, and try to explain why you're asking. Let them know that you're concerned and would like to talk about it. Perhaps suggest they do it to humour you or to ease your mind. Sometimes people are more willing to engage in things they don't really want to do when they feel like they're doing it for someone else. 

3. Listen without judging

Try not to interrupt or talk over the other person. It's understandable that they might be defensive or try to minimise the problem – it may be a matter of pride. Or they might simply see things differently to the way you do.

Nodding, maintaining eye contact and keeping your body language open and engaged are just as effective as speaking to let someone know you're listening to them.

4. Focus on the other person

When you're raising your concerns, keep in mind that this isn't about you. Try to focus on the other person's feelings and concerns before talking about what you want to happen.

By putting their views at the centre of the conversation, you're more likely to get them to open up, and you'll show them that you're there for them.

5. Agree small steps together

Remember, this conversation isn't about 'winning' – the other person may not acknowledge or agree with everything you have to say.

That can be frustrating, but small steps forward can be the best way to make lasting changes that help. Letting some things go in favour of building up your relationship can be much more effective in the long run.

"There was like an inch of dust [at their home], but I let the person say 'Oh my eyes are bad, I didn't see that'. I'm not going to challenge it, we don't have to agree why, as long as we can agree there's dust there." 

Professional working with older people

6. Be prepared to have more than one conversation

Sometimes, talking things over once isn't enough. You might find that you need to have lots of little talks. That's often the case when you're discussing complex, emotionally-charged topics, or when someone's feelings, behaviour or interpretation of events can change a lot. 

This can feel draining or like you're not getting anywhere, but keep trying. Remember, you don't have to cover everything in one go. Try breaking down what you want to discuss into smaller talks. This might help the other person feel less overwhelmed or attacked, if you find they act defensively when you try to talk to them. 

Conversations about sensitive topics aren't easy. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time, and choose a place to talk where you won't be interrupted. And it's OK to take a break or call time on a conversation if things are getting heated. You can always come back to it again later. 

Let's recap

  1. Keep calm and try to listen without jumping to conclusions. 
  2. Don't start by problem-solving or saying what you want to happen. Try to get the person to open up and tell you their side of things. 
  3. You don't have to 'sort it' in one conversation - in fact, it's much more likely that you'll have lots of little conversations. Even small steps forward are progress, so keep going. 

What next?

Remember, in most cases you can’t force someone to accept help or act on their behalf unless they agree to it. Let's explore what you could do if you've spoken to the person and they still don't see things the way you do.

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Last updated: Aug 31 2022

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