Approaching sensitive conversations

Understand how to have a sensitive or challenging conversation with a volunteer – includes planning, having open discussions and agreeing next steps

As a commissioner, an important part of your role is to ensure the right processes are in place to provide care and support for local volunteers.

It's part of Girlguiding’s commitment to caring for the individual and every volunteer’s support needs are different. There might be times when you need to have a challenging or sensitive conversation with a volunteer about additional support, to make sure they're happy in their role and are able to be their best self.

Get to know all the volunteers in your area well and make time to talk to them and be aware of their circumstances both in and outside of guiding. You can then build up a relationship with them, keep in regular contact and offer help and assistance if they need it. It's really important as you're managing a team. 

There may be times when you need to follow formal Girlguiding processes, for example, if a complaint is made against a volunteer or there's a safeguarding concern. For more information, see our complaints policy and managing concerns about adult volunteers policy.

Sensitive and challenging topics

There are many reasons you might need to have a conversation with a volunteer that could be challenging or difficult.

They may:

  • Have asked you for support.
  • Have disclosed information about their physical or mental health.
  • Need maternity cover or support.
  • Have had a change in personal circumstances, for example their childcare needs have changed.
  • Be experiencing difficulties at home.
  • Have had a professional change, for example they're now working evenings or shifts.
  • Be considering retirement.
  • Have changed their communication patterns, for example a volunteer who normally answers emails quickly isn’t replying to communications.
  • Have been a subject of concern from parents or other volunteers.

In any case, it’s important to consider how to approach the conversation so it's as constructive as possible.

Preparing to talk with the volunteer

  • Pick the right communication method – some members may not like to be contacted over the phone, while others may struggle with long emails. So, when making initial contact, use their preferred method. It’s better to have any challenging or sensitive conversations face-to-face.
  • Use positive language – when you contact the volunteer, use positive active language like ‘I want to have a chat about how I can support you more’.
  • Offer reassurance – let the member know that this is not a formal conversation or process. For some volunteers this may be the first time that they've been contacted directly by their commissioner, so they could be worried that they're in trouble.
  • Think about the venue – choose a location where you both feel comfortable to have the conversation, such as a cafe. This isn't a formal process conversation and doesn't need to be in a formal location. However, if a conversation is potentially sensitive, it might be more appropriate to choose somewhere more discreet and quiet.
  • Ask if they'd like someone there to support - the volunteer may feel more comfortable having a supportive person with them if they're sharing sensitive information.
  • Plan your time – make sure that you both have plenty of time for the conversation, so that you don’t feel rushed and are able to fully discuss the volunteer’s needs.

During the conversation

The aim of your conversation with the volunteer is to consider ways that you can support them as an individual. There are a host of ways you can do this, for example, offering them training, discussing changes in their leadership team, or reviewing their role so it suits their needs.

But remember this is a two-way conversation, so don’t begin knowing what you would like the outcomes to be. Give the volunteer the opportunity to feed into the discussion and influence the outcomes and make notes of any key points raised and any agreed actions.

You may wish to use our conversation template to help facilitate the discussion. This is intended as a guide and not a script, so feel free to adapt it to your needs.

Active listening

In conversation, it’s vital that you listen properly and find out what the world looks like from the other person’s point of view.

These top tips will help with active listening:

  • Time: give the other person time to form sentences about how they’re feeling and to express  
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes people need time to process and order their thoughts, especially when upset about something. Don’t  
  • Concentration: concentrate on what the other person is telling you and ignore the narrative inside your own head. Try to avoid immediately linking what you’re hearing to your own experiences, feelings and opinions. 
  • Non-verbal cues: pay attention to the other person’s non-verbal communication and what that tells you about their feelings and experiences. Use your own non-verbal communication to encourage the other person (e.g. leaning forward, smiling, nodding, making positive eye contact). 
  • Open questions: encourage the other person to express themselves further by asking open questions (e.g. ‘How did you feel about this?’). 
  • Reflection: respond to the other person by summarising what you’ve heard them telling you. This can help them to understand their own feelings and actions, and they can correct you if you’ve misunderstood. 
  • Difference: be aware that people have different backgrounds and abilities. A person may need more or less time to think about what they want to say, or might use different words. 

At the end of the conversation

  • Make sure that you have both agreed the outcomes to the conversation and that you are both clear who has agreed to do what.
  • Confirm this with the volunteer in writing, including agreed actions and dates.
  • Agree a date to both update each other on changes and review whether the support agreed is working for the volunteer and for local guiding.
  • Let them know that they can contact you in the meantime.

After the conversation

There may be times when formal Girlguiding processes need to be followed, for example if a complaint is made against a volunteer or a safeguarding concern has been raised. Make sure you’re familiar with our policies and procedures, so you can identify when it’s appropriate to take further action. 

If you feel that the changes in the volunteer’s circumstances means they'll pose a risk to themselves or others by continuing in their role (and they're not willing to make adjustments to ensure everyone’s safety) you must discuss this with your commissioner or our volunteer support team. The volunteer should be made aware that you're seeking further advice.

More generally, if you have any further concerns about volunteers in your area, it’s important to keep your commissioner informed. Write a brief report on your talk and agreed outcomes, using the volunteer’s membership number rather than name to identify them. If you’re sending the report by email, make sure to password protect it, and keep any related correspondence confidentially locked and secure.

If a volunteer has disclosed information about their health or a disability, this is strictly confidential and must not be shared with anyone else without the volunteer's permission.

Download our template conversation

Our conversation template gives you an idea of the sorts of questions you could ask a volunteer about their situation, and how best to enquire about their support needs.