Strategies to Initiate a Supportive Conversation

August 30, 2023

After a traumatic event, we can benefit from the care and compassion offered through dialogue with our campus community. As Tar Heels, we value conversations that help us better understand ourselves and our community through exchanging ideas, feelings, and beliefs in a respectful environment. These dialogues can be initiated by faculty, staff or students and can take place one-on-one or in your classroom, workplace, or organization. Often, the act of telling someone how we feel and being genuinely heard can support healing in powerful ways. While it can be difficult to know how to initiate a conversation about a traumatic event, there are strategies that can help.  

Before the conversation

  • Check in with yourself. You likely have feelings and thoughts about what happened. Whatever you’re feeling is valid and worth talking about with someone you trust, not only for yourself, but also for the sake of the people around you. Take care of your own well-being and seek support from your network, mentors, or counseling services if needed. Remember that supporting others can be emotionally demanding.  
  • Make time to talk.
    • If you lead a classroom or organization, plan to talk at the beginning of your next meeting.  
    • For one-on-one conversations, consider privacy, convenience and comfort. Some people will be more open to talk while engaged in another activity such as while walking or cooking together.
  • Prepare for facts, then feelings. Often the discussion starts with facts and questions about what actually happened. People are more comfortable discussing facts than feelings, especially in an academic environment. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions. You might say something like: "Do you want to talk about how this event made you feel? I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share."  
  • Be open to a range of responses. Everyone is affected differently and reacts differently. One person may be more vocal or expressive than another with their feelings and thoughts. Some people may have strong feelings immediately, while others may take time for their feelings to show. Be open to the range of responses.  
  • Be prepared for blaming and seeking certainty. When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger and coping mechanism. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, future tragedies can be avoided by doing things "right." By looking for an explanation, we attempt to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. Tragedies and traumas are especially difficult to understand by their very nature. Uncertainty feels distressing, but sometimes it is inevitable. If the discussion gets centered on blaming, you can be ready to say: "Focusing on anger and blame is a normal response. It might be useful to talk about our fears."  

During the conversation

  • Initiate the dialogue. Acknowledge the events and suggest that it might be helpful to share personal experiences or reactions.  
  • Actively listen. Remember all feelings are valid and deserve to be heard without judgement. Offer your undivided attention. 
  • Offer hope and reassurance. Offer hope and comfort. Feelings will shift with time and things will get better. Give reassurance and information. 
  • Notice coping strategies. Notice and validate when you see healthy coping strategies. Address unhealthy coping in a private setting. Examples of unhealthy coping include isolating oneself too much, using alcohol or drugs excessively, throwing oneself obsessively into one activity, missing class or work, panic attacks, flashbacks, or behavior problems. Say what you have noticed and express your willingness to help. Connect with support resources. 

After the conversation

  • Be flexible. After a traumatic event, accommodations may be needed in workload, living arrangements, and expectations. It is normal for people not to be able to function at their full capacity when trying to deal with an emotional situation. This is the time to be flexible. 
  • Express gratitude and share resources. In ending the conversation, it is useful to thank people for sharing. Encourage continued conversation by being available for follow-up and offering options for additional sources of support. Mental health resources are searchable and filterable at Remember that your role is to listen, provide support and suggest resources when the issues are beyond your ability to help. Be open to visiting mental health resources with someone who needs it. 
  • Give time to reflect. Remain open to further discussions. Check back to see how people feel at a later date. Even when everything seems to be back to normal, emotions may linger.  

Thank you for being a part of our culture of care and compassion.

Adapted from The Ohio State University and developed with the support of UNC CAPS 

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