Having difficult conversations as a healthcare professional

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Health Assured team

12 April 2023

Working in healthcare requires navigating circumstances that can be intense, emotional and challenging—difficult conversations are often one of these moments. Delivering bad news is never an easy task, and you might not always have any influence on the outcome of a given situation. But your delivery of this message can have a huge impact on the people who receive it. So in this article, we’ll look at some tips to help you improve these conversations—for both yourself and the people you talk to.

Thinking about the environment

Before you step into the conversation, think about where and how you’re going to deliver the news. Ensure you’re somewhere where you won’t get interrupted, find a quiet, private space and think about having a colleague with you to support you.
If you’re delivering the news over the phone, think about how to approach the conversation when you're unable to see visual cues and try your best to find a spot with a good phone signal.

Building a connection

Try your best to make a connection with the person you’re talking to before you deliver any serious news. Make the person feel comfortable by sitting down with them if you can—and introduce yourself by telling them your name and title.
Think about your tone, as this can have a huge impact on the way a conversation unfolds and how the news is received. Building a bond with a soft tone and a proper introduction can allow you to deliver the conversation effectively and confidently.

Use sensitive yet precise language

Make sure you have all the correct information to hand before having the conversation. You might want to use a warning sign like ‘I’m sorry’ to ease the person into what’s to come. Try to be sensitive to the person’s emotions with your language but be precise and ensure that you deliver the news without any misunderstandings. If the person gets emotional, create some space by allowing silence. Acknowledge their emotions—and when they are ready, repeat the news, if possible. Often, emotions can make it difficult for people to take in what has been said, so this repetition can help.

Using Empathy

Conveying empathy can be difficult if you’re wearing PPE, but it’s vital to soften any difficult news you might be delivering. Try to put yourself into the person’s shoes and think about how you would want to receive this news. Listening and allowing the person space also feeds into this.

Drawing the conversation to a close

Try to close the conversation by summarising what’s been said and providing some hope by discussing the next steps or signposting them to a place they can receive support. Ask if they have understood what you've said, see if they have any questions about what will happen next, and lay out a clear outline of what will follow.

Support yourself

Having these conversations can take their toll on your wellbeing. So remember to debrief with your colleagues, particularly if you’ve dealt with an exchange that brings up emotions. Discussing these interactions with someone who can understand is a good way to express any thoughts or feelings you might have about how the conversation went.

Help from Health Assured

If you have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) with Health Assured, know that we are here to support you with a confidential space to explore any difficult conversation you have at work, be that with a patient, relatives or other staff members. 

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