Difficult conversations and how to start them
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How do you start a conversation on mental health in the workplace? Is it best to plan a conversation on workplace wellbeing and see how employees respond? Or is it best to use a scheduled review to talk about depression, anxiety or other mental health issues? Or is there a different, proactive approach that is worth consideration?

Many of us will have experienced hard conversations at work – either on the receiving end, or starting them. Difficult conversations are an essential part of a management role, but don’t let a bad experience put you off trying to do better. And where mental wellbeing of staff is concerned, you owe it to everyone to find the right words and to keep the exchange as smooth as possible.

I’m a huge fan of action and goals over words and directives. We also like to stay focused so we can give the best service to the people we work with – and acronyms and visuals are a key part of this process. So, here we are: EVENT, a handy aide memoire to help you plan a workplace conversation. about wellbeing and mental health.

How to plan a difficult conversation

First, it all starts with planning. The key to successful outcomes is to learn how to handle tricky conversations in a way that is less painful for you, and less pain for the person you’re talking to


This is the purpose of the meeting. As with all processes it is massively important to have buy in from the other person. If this does not happen then there is no point in the meeting. This is a key element to the mentoring approach in mental health. Remember, the meeting is not about sickness absence management! It is about an individual who for whatever reason is going through something that is having a negative effect on their mental health and the chances are that being called to this sort of conversation will get their anxiety levels up along with their defences.

It is entirely possible that this whole meeting could be about engaging the other person and reassuring them that you are genuinely interested in them. Finding out how you can best support them during this difficult time.


The meeting is about them. Not the company and definitely not about bringing their performance or absences up from a company perspective. The individual must always be the centre and most important person in the room. It’s their thoughts, their feelings and their fears that are the most important. People on the edge see shadows everywhere and these shadows come to represent everything that’s negative.

I’m sure we have all heard the comments; “I’ve been summoned to a meeting. I’m sure they will find something else to hit me with” or “I’ve been called to see…What have I done wrong this time?”

Unfortunately, the general rule of thumb is that any meeting with a superior is viewed as a problem or about the company.

It is important to show the individual that this is about how you can help and that means as much or as little as they are comfortable with. Remember at the beginning it may take time to reach over that ‘them’ and ‘us’ gap. Constantly show the individual they are valued, not only by the company, but by you. You will build trust and ultimately enable the conversation to flow and more delicate issues will naturally be able to be raised.


As the word implies let the individual run the meeting. Encourage them to take charge, to tell you what they want and need, own their own wellbeing. But you are also continuing to build that bridge, enabling difficult conversations and topics to be covered. Encouraging can take many different forms from vocal support and agreeance to body language or in some cases a non-judgemental reassuring silence. Remember silence does not always mean that people have finished talking or don’t want to. We naturally find silence awkward and tend to try and fill it (a tactic used in sales for many years). However, it can also just mean that someone is gathering their thoughts or that they are working up the courage to talk about something they find difficult.


The chances that we know what’s best for everyone is next to nothing. We may have suggestions or ideas based on what we hear but without engagement from the individual they are pointless. It is so important at this stage to make sure that whatever is decided next is the idea of the individual. Obviously, policies and procedures must be adhered to. The result must be realistic but it’s what’s realistic to them at that time. Things can always be revisited, expanded or changed to better suit. But, this must be a negotiation not a list of things the company can do tick the relevant box for what you want. Sometimes the solution can be straightforward, but you will never know if the negotiation phase doesn’t take place.


This is as important as getting the first phase right. Remember the individual has the relationship with you, they realise that you are busy, they know you have lots of people to see but it is you that have taken the time to try and understand them and their situation not the company.

People buy into people and this is the key to a mentoring approach for mental health. Time table to see them again. You. Not an endless conveyor belt of I’m sure very talented and professional people. You. It’s you the person trusts, it’s you the person has just shared their issues with and it’s you that they want to continue the working relationship with.

This whole process takes time. The time invested will change person-to-person, as everyone is different and deserves to be treated as an individual.