Conversations about problems: 7 options

Some time ago I had a conversation with a woman who consulted me about depressive symptoms. This was not a first conversation. At the start of our meeting I told her that I was curious about 2 things. One: when had the depressive symptoms had less of an impact than normal? I said that this question came up because often some good inspiration can be found in such moments.

There was also another curiosity but she chose the former. We had a long conversation and at the end I asked her what she took away from it. She told me it had been a good thing that I had invited her to talk about some of the better moments. If I had not done that, she would have felt obliged to talk about some of her worst days. And she thought that this would not have turned out well.

Talking about problematic or painful experiences does not always have positive effects on people. It can awaken bad experiences.

Plus: negative conclusions about their own identity.

Plus: hopelessness.
How do you provide space to talk about impactful psychosocial problems whilst protecting your conversation partner against unwanted negative identity conclusions and against hopelessness?

Let me summarise a 7 options:

1. Keep person and problem apart, and research:

  • the name that your conversation partner gives to the problem,
  • the effects of the problem on his or her life,
  • what you conversation partner thinks of those effects,
  • why your partner objects to those effects: what goals, desires, dreams, hope, beliefs … are thwarted by the problem. And talk extensively about those goals, desires,…


2. Explore what the role of the context in the impact of the problem is: for example, power techniques used by others, expectations that are taken for granted, …

3. Zigzag between speaking about

  • the problem,
  • initiatives of your conversation partner to reduce the impact of the problem,
  • how your conversation partner is able to cope & about
  • sparkling experiences.

4. Show interest in aspects of life that escape the impact of the problem.

5. Explore what progress could look like (in the eyes of the person and in the eyes of others): and do this in a very concrete way!

6. Make use of the various possibilities of a scale to have a meaningful ‘scale conversation’.

7. Ask permission to share with others what you are learning in the conversation (for example, about coping initiatives but also about how certain problems operate).


How do you contribute to a safe conversation about painful things?

And if you are the one talking about painful things in your life: what makes it safe for you?

Johan Van de Putte