Managing Conversations with Difficult Family Members detail

Managing Conversations with Difficult Family Members

07/25/2021 Written by: Kristy Dickens, RN MHA

You’ve just come out of your office to take your final walk through the facility on a Friday afternoon before ending the week. Maybe your week went smoothly; maybe it was a rough one. Either way, you’re getting ready to start your weekend, hoping for a little rest and relaxation. Then, you see her walking down the hall, and she’s headed your way. The family member that makes your staff want to run and hide. The one who always comes to your building with complaints and grievances. You want to duck inside the kitchen, the activities room – even the soiled linens room will do. But you don’t. You put a smile on your face and greet this family member, because dealing with challenging family members is part of the job. In fact, it is an important part of the job.

For most people, dealing with unhappy family members is a skill that is learned and developed over time with experience and practice. When you work in the senior living environment, dealing with challenging family members is a guarantee, so it’s best to ensure you are prepared for those difficult conversations.

It is important to put this type of situation into perspective. Try to understand what the resident’s family member is dealing with at the moment. Some of the emotions that many family members are experiencing include fear, grief, and guilt. These emotions can easily lead to a person acting or speaking in a way that is out of character for them and being able to react to that encounter in such a way that communicates genuine empathy goes a long way toward guiding the conversation in a more civilized and productive direction.

According to Healthy Workforce Institute’s 2018 article, “4 Step Action Plan: How to Deal with Difficult Patients & Families”, there are several strategies for easing the tension of a difficult conversation. Two of these include:

  • Listening. The first and best thing you can do when someone comes to you with a concern is to listen, without responding or interrupting. Becoming defensive only serves to perpetuate the family member’s anger and frustration. “Active listening is essential to our job” says Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CSP - author of the 2018 article. A tip she offers is to sit down with the person, leaning in toward them and looking them in the eye. This demonstrates that you are interested in what they have to say. It shows that you care. 
  • Asking Questions. When the person has finished telling you about their concerns, follow up with a few questions to clarify any information or details that are important to take seriously. Often, families will come to you complaining about anything and everything, but at the heart of it all is typically only one concern or problem. Asking the question, “What do you need right now?” can focus the family member on the core of their issues, and it gives you a place to start addressing the real problem.

Additional steps to take when navigating a contentious conversation with a family member include:

  • Repeat back what you understand the issues or concerns to be.
  • Be honest about what your facility or community can and cannot execute due to staffing, regulations, etc.
  • Follow up with the individual after a few days, and again in a few weeks. It is important to know if what your team has done to address any complaints is being positively received, or if further discussion is warranted. This also conveys that you took their concerns seriously and you care about them and their loved one who is a resident in your care.

While it is one of the most unpleasant tasks associated with being a caregiver or healthcare manager, handling these uncomfortable conversations effectively is important to achieving and maintaining satisfied customers. It also goes a long way toward diffusing situations that evolve into litigation.

For additional ideas or support when dealing with difficult families, reach out to your AssuredPartners Senior Living Insurance and Risk Management professionals.

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