Many managers avoid having difficult conversations because they worry about saying the wrong thing that could ultimately make matters worse. If businesses want to have difficult conversations — including those about well-being and burnout — with their staff, they need to train their managers to create safe spaces to discuss all things difficult.

What Makes a Safe Space?

Any person holding a safe space needs to feel balanced and calm. If they don’t, they can tend to rush things, blurt things out or make the other person mirror their worry. They also need to be compassionate. Compassion is where empathy, non-judgment, listening and assertiveness align. It is when people listen to help others help themselves. Managers need to be skilled at asking open, clear questions, not thinking about targets and output.

Those hosting safe spaces also need to stay curious. They should want to understand employees’ needs, even if they are very different from theirs. It’s also important to avoid giving advice as they may not know others’ circumstances. If businesses want to give individuals something, they can provide them with resources instead.

Normalizing conversations about mental and emotional well-being makes them easier. When businesses create regular well-being spaces, people bring up the unsaid, the unconscious biases, the discomfort and the difficulties without judgement, pity, rescuing or avoidance strategies.

Tips for Creating a Safe Space

  1. Get prepared: Preparing a few basics will really help make tough conversations more comfortable. Managers should choose a well-considered location, block out plenty of time in their diary and turn their phone off. The person needs to feel heard. Managers must also prepare themselves mentally, remaining compassionate, curious and calm. It’s essential to forget all assumptions and to listen in the present moment.
  2. Set clear boundaries: The most important thing is confidentiality. Managers need to be explicit about what will be shared and what won’t. Most of the time, in a one-on-one meeting, the information can be kept within the two people. But in the instance of serious concerns about someone’s well-being or their safety, managers need to make it clear that it will have to be reported. Sometimes, when challenging well-being conversations are taking place consistently, a professional supervisor may be required for extra support.
  3. Find a question that gets them talking first: The first question asked will depend on the context, but open questions are great ways to get people talking. Questions that start with “tell me,” “how” or “what” are usually good in these circumstances. For example, questions like, “Tell me how things are going,” “How are you?” or “What’s been going on for you?” can be a good place to start. If an employee opens up, managers should try to keep asking follow-up questions so they have a clear picture of the situation. The who, what, why, where, when, how questions are great follow ups. If someone isn’t particularly chatty or open, managers may need to go for a longer-term approach and have shorter but more consistent catch-ups. Maybe they could try leaving the office to visit a coffee shop. It’s also important to realize that just being with someone, even in silence, can be supportive too.
  4. Listen: Listening to support someone is not just a question of hearing words; listening is challenging. When we listen, we filter. Add that to socialized biases, personal beliefs and nuance of tone and body language, and listening can be like having several conversations at once. Managers need to keep it simple. At the start, they should listen without interrupting, listening for “feeling” words to check the person’s internal state. They should look at them, not stare. A great technique is looking around someone’s face, so no one makes eye contact for too long. If people move their gaze in this way they will look engaged but not intense. If someone looks uncomfortable, managers might need to check if they want to talk to them and, if not, who they would prefer to chat to instead.
  5. Get good at summarizing and clarifying: Part of listening is clarifying. An important skill when having difficult conversations is being able to summarize back what a person has said. This is not just a memory exercise; it’s a way of the person listening back from a third-person perspective. When they hear their words in someone else’s tone, it can change their negative self-talk into self-awareness.
  6. Hold the complexity: It’s important for managers to let employees know that they hear them. If there was a challenging situation that has led to well-being conversation taking place, managers may have spoken to a number of people. Managers can validate a person’s emotions by saying, “I’m sorry this has happened to you,” or “That must have been really tough to hear/experience.” By validating that person’s emotions, it doesn’t negate other people’s positions. Different words and different circumstances are difficult for different people, and managers need to understand everyone’s needs to improve a groups’ working situation.
  7. Agree on a plan: At the end of the well-being conversation, a plan of action should be created, even if it’s just to set up the next meeting. Managers should find out what the employee needs. It may need to be explored with human resources (HR) or other internal professionals to determine a realistic response. People may need to agree how to move forward, taking into account the confidentiality they agreed at the start. If the issue needs to be escalated, the person needs to agree to bring someone else into the conversation. Managers should aim to get a date in the diary for the planned action to occur before they break off the meeting. It helps to work out if an employee needs any changes or reasonable adjustments to their working day or week. If managers are worried about them, they should make sure a support mechanism is put in place for the person.
  8. Making well-being activities a group activity: Well-being conversations at a team level are about sharing experiences, reviewing behaviors and finding solutions where everyone is able to feel comfortable to be themselves at work. After managers have implemented regular one-on-ones with individual employees, they should think about where to have group well-being conversations regularly as well. Embedding these conversations into a regular work week can create a huge shift. Avoiding it will escalate issues. Managers should start soon and start simply, monitoring improvement, even if it’s just sharing heart rate improvements, steps or sleep patterns. Sharing should be encouraged. Work to practice self-care as a team. Anything can work, such as lunchtime team walks, morning check-ins, buddy exercising, monthly breakfast clubs, quotes of the week, music sharing. Whatever works for their office and team, managers should give it a go, review and try to create some accountability. This way, safe spaces become an inherent part of the workplace and a sustainable process that everyone can rely on.