What if? Tips for challenging conversations


Make certain you are physically and emotionally available and willing to be with a family or person you support. People can be sensitive to body language, facial expressions, or the way you dress.  They will also pick up on your TRUE feelings.

When meeting with someone and trying to form a trusting relationship, position yourself BELOW them…sit lower or at least on the same level and not higher. BE OPEN and be sure you don’t respond in a way that conveys that you think you know better than the family or person you support. They will not respond well to this!

Position yourself to make eye contact and lean forward to show that you are listening carefully. Use the person’s name (ask them how they would like to be addressed) and use nods/facial expressions to show you are paying attention. Paraphrase what has been said so that everyone knows you are truly listening.

Be careful of your appearance. To build a relationship with someone you need to look approachable and available…take your cue from the situation! Sometimes casual is better! Do not hide behind a notepad.

Set a positive tone in conversations and make sure that everyone involved has needed information ahead of meeting with you if possible. If there is something that will be difficult it is better to know about it!

Agree on some basic guidelines for your meeting or conversation so people know what is ok or not ok to say or discuss. Have an agenda that everyone contributes to. Identify sensitive topics and get permission to intervene if needed.

Use Person-Centered thinking skills for gathering information. Make sure that what people say is written down so that they know you listened. If there are topics that can’t be discussed or when there is not enough time, write them down so everyone knows they will be addressed in the future.

Check your own feelings and make sure that you do not have any negative feelings about a person or family. Feelings can be conveyed in subtle ways you may not be aware of.  People know and can tell when you are truly there for them and want to help and support them. THINK ACCEPTANCE of the person or family… NO JUDGEMENTS!!!

Try not to listen to negative comments about a family member.  Remember they have been with their child since birth and may have experienced very negative, confrontational, or condescending treatment in the past.

Do not pass judgment about parents…we need to take care not to judge how a family may or may not work with their child.

Recognize that some people have traumatic histories, and this is what makes them behave in challenging ways. For example, if you are dealing with a very frustrated or angry family…they may have experienced having to tell their story multiple times and now are being asked to do so AGAIN!  They may be exhausted, and frightened when confronted with many people in a meeting or worried that they will hear bad news. All parents want to hear that others like their child and that there are positive and likeable things about their children…even their adult children.

When you disagree…try listening more and talking less…in fact this is a good practice anyway…you will learn more. TALK LESS AND LISTEN MORE!

Remember that you do not have to have all the answers…you can say” I am glad you brought that up…I will need to get more information and get back to you”. You can also help the group come to their own solutions in some situations.

If you make a mistake, just say so and then follow up.

Be familiar with each person you support and their families as well as their history. Look in the information you have for meaningful history that may help provide insight about that person and their needs.

Understand that setting a limit may trigger some people. Sometimes it’s best to ignore behavior such as ranting and raving on the phone. At times, the more the person is attended to …the worse the behavior becomes.

Build your own understanding of the impact of abuse or trauma and mental health issues.

Build teams of support when someone is challenging……. It is helpful to use person-centered thinking skills to assist in defining what is and is not our job in supporting someone. Acknowledge the challenges facing those who are providing direct support as they are doing difficult work. Develop good working relationships with all supporting agencies, regional center, and families. Working in partnership is the only way we can help someone toward their best life.

Remember not to personalize a person or family’s behavior. What you are seeing now may be the result of long-term misunderstandings, trauma, or problems. It is not a reflection of you.

Set limits and understand that in doing so you will anger some people, but you may be stopping that “helping professional enabling behavior” that can make things worse.