Communicating concerns

By Colleen Sulsberger
Protecting the Innocent

Communicating concerns about someone’s behavior without causing additional angst or creating more problems is difficult and uncomfortable. When we come to this part of the Virtus training class, I often find it difficult to get participants to share their thoughts. Yet, it’s one of the most important parts of the steps we all must take to protect children. Many children have been rescued by courageous caregivers who set their fear and discomfort aside and spoke up when they noticed something that didn’t seem right to them. Let’s go one step further to discuss how someone in a supervisory capacity can have an effective conversation to relay the communicated concern.

Some of you may be thinking of not reading any further. After all, you are not “in charge” of anything at the parish or school; you are just supervising the playground or helping with religious ed. But everyone has the responsibility to keep their eyes and ears open when kids are around, watching the interactions between them, between the adults and the kids, and all of the issues we will address are relevant to situations at work, at community events, in committee activities, or even for someone who is in charge of cleaning the kitchen after a church dinner. At some time or other, most of us have some responsibility for other adults who are working with us, or are in situations where children are working or playing nearby where we can observe. This article is intended to help you be better prepared for those situations.

A common problem arises when concerns about behavior, which may be genuine and sincerely meant to foster safer environments, create stress for the supervisor who needs to communicate them, fearing that delivering this message could cause someone to quit the volunteer program. No one likes to feel they are being accused, so this reaction is understandable, but it underscores the importance of having everybody on your team current on their Virtus training.  In that way, supervisors can remind everyone that as adults, we all take the responsibility for keeping an eye on each other and letting our teammates know if we are doing something that causes concern.

Looking out for each other is the best way to assure that there is an atmosphere of openness and a willingness to be monitored while we interact with children and minors. Individuals need to know if something they are doing causes concern for others. When there is a concern, others can take action to alert the individual responsible, correct the behavior, and alleviate the concern.

Be clear about the nature of the concern and the ways that the concern can be eliminated. As the person in charge, it is extremely important that you carefully prepare for this conversation. You want to communicate the concern accurately, and, at the same time, encourage the person who is the subject of the complaint to listen to what you are saying and use it as a catalyst for finding new, safe, creative ways of interacting with young people – by behaving in a fashion that eliminates, or at least minimizes, the concern of others.

One way to begin the conversation is to remind the person that one of the great opportunities available for participants in the Virtus programs is that we learn things about ourselves that we might not otherwise have recognized. For example, we have a chance to interact with young people while having our actions monitored by others – an opportunity to eliminate any careless behaviors. By creating this sort of context for the conversation, you can remind the person that communicating concerns and being reviewed and redirected are two of the intended outcomes of the Protecting God’s Children program for adults. This can set the stage for a productive conversation.

Make sure that concerns expressed to you are dealt with effectively and quickly. Ignoring a concern does not serve anyone not the children, not the person with the concern, and not the person whose behavior gives rise to the concern.

                Colleen Sulsberger is coordinator of the Office of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Sioux City.

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