Complaints handling practice guide

Supporting respectful engagement: handling difficult situations

Message from the Ombudsman

In our work with public organisations across Scotland the SPSO is frequently asked about how to respond to people who are complaining in a way that the organisations find difficult. This guide aims to help organisations and staff in these situations.

People may have strong views and feelings about the issues they complain about, and may already be feeling frustrated, angry or distressed before complaining. The relationship can become difficult and break down, leaving staff feeling overwhelmed, unsupported, harassed or bullied. Complainers can feel misunderstood and frustrated that the organisation is not listening to them. Being people-centred, a key complaint handling principle, can seem difficult to maintain in these circumstances.

It is all of our responsibility to create spaces where we reduce conflict and ensure we listen with respect and kindness to each other. Organisations need to support staff and users to engage positively with each other. At the same time, there is a need to protect the service and staff from behaviour which can have a significant negative impact. Thinking about the rights of those involved can help to ensure we balance these.

SPSO have recently revisited our own Engagement Policy. We have shifted emphasis to promote positive engagement and updated it to bring it in line with the available research on managing difficult communication and our key value of being people-centred.

This revised guide, with its emphasis on using neutral language and non-judgmental approaches, focusing on repairing a difficult situation rather than apportioning responsibility, reflects those changes. The approach will work most effectively if it fits within a broader approach to engagement which works to support positive engagement throughout rather than trying to cope with relationships that have become difficult.

Empowering staff to proactively manage relationships and de-escalate distressing situations can help us meet the needs of those whose situation means they may act in ways others find difficult to understand. Key elements of this approach are:

  • Governance and support for staff, helping to have oversight and to create those open conversations with mutual respect
  • Setting boundaries as a key way to keep conversations respectful (and this needs to be maintained consistently across the organisation)
  • Contingency planning and a risk-based approach – this needs to include how organisations respond to zero tolerance situations and events which may make it difficult for you to provide a service

This is an area where we learn constantly and we welcome your thoughts and comments. This guide is not a solution, but we hope it helps to take this conversation forward.

This guide has been produced to help organisations and individual staff approach the most common problems that can occur when managing complaints. The examples are based not only on our own experience but also include suggestions shared from across the Scottish public sector. It is not exhaustive or prescriptive. Each situation is different and it is not possible to say definitively what the correct response is in every case. Judgement is always required. The aim is to provide a starting point to help people exercise their judgement fairly.

The aim throughout is to ensure that complaints can be handled in the best way possible. The goal is not to avoid responding to complaints but to provide strategies which may help to de-escalate problems and to ensure where action is needed to manage communication with a customer, their rights to have their complaint heard and responded to are not denied or undermined. [You may notice that throughout we refer to people who may complain as customers or even more simply as persons or individuals. Some organisations, may be more used to describing them as clients or service users. Customer, person and individual are being used as easily understood, generic terms].

Remember the organisation and the customer have a shared interest. It is important for every organisation to know if the decisions they are making or the way they are acting is having negative or unintended consequences. Complaints are valuable feedback. Helping staff be more confident in dealing with difficult communication means they can help customers make clear what their concerns are and what they would like to happen. In this way the complainant can receive the clearest answer and when something has gone wrong that it can be fixed quickly.

Each section of the guide considers a different topic and includes some suggested strategies. The strategies are not comprehensive, we only deal with some issues that may be raised. They are often set out as statements or questions you could use in conversation or as sample letters so you can see how they may work in practice. 

Throughout this guide you will see information boxes that contain important or useful points and practical hints or tips.

There is a very close link between the policies and training an organisation has in place and the way staff respond to difficult situations. This guide can be used by both but you may want to use it in different ways.

If you have a policy or organisation-wide focus

If you are responsible for creating policy you may need to read all the sections when developing or reviewing completely new policies and training to support them. Otherwise you should read the governance section and then whichever of the particular sections best identifies the situations you are considering developing a policy about. As a general guide, we would expect organisations to have policies around engagement that needs to be managed and zero tolerance. You should have training and support available for the situations around ‘difficult for you’.

If you have a personal focus

Individual staff can use the flowchart to help them work out which section would be most helpful for the situation they are trying to manage. You will also need to understand the policies your own organisations has in place. If you are unsure or looking for general information, you should start with the ‘difficult for you’ section.

This guide will not cover every situation or solve every problem. In some cases, it may simply help to identify areas where your organisation may need some tailored solutions or specific training.

We know many organisations use our Engagement Policy, this guide supplements that policy but deals with a much broader range of situations.

*Language which labels people as 'vexatious' or 'difficult' is not helpful. The focus should always be on the situation and what you need to do in response. Neither is it helpful to make judgements about the cause of the situation, or people’s behaviour. People do not always act at their best, particularly when they are unhappy and stressed. Concentrating on the situation, rather than the cause, can help you decide whether you need to respond at all, and can also allow you to have open discussions with the individual about how best to move things forward.*  

Difficult situations can be very varied and will never neatly fit into categories. We have used the following headings to help structure the advice and support in this guide. [You should note our experience of this is most often by telephone or writing, which are our most common forms of contact with our customers. The strategies we suggest may need adapted for face-to-face contact.]

Difficult for you

This section covers situations which an individual may find difficult but it would be reasonable to expect a well-trained, confident member of staff to be able to deal with in most circumstances.

Managing engagement

This section covers situations which are affecting the ability of the member of staff or the organisation to do their job. These can most easily be identified by considering the impact that the engagement has on the resources of the individual or organisation. When an unfair or disproportionate amount of resource is being used, the situation will need to be addressed. Impact on resources is not only about the use of physical resources or time but can include the impact on emotional resource. At times the situation needs to be managed immediately. We deal with situations when action needs to be taken immediately in the Zero Tolerance section. It should be noted these are simply another form of managing engagement, but the risks and challenges are very specific and that is why they are dealt with separately.


This is the situation most commonly cited as a problem by staff and organisations. We look at this in a separate section. It is not a category SPSO use in our Engagement Policy, and the section on persistence explains why and also provides some suggestions for how to respond to persistence.

Zero Tolerance

This section covers situations where an immediate response is needed, or situations that are always unacceptable and, therefore, always require action. It is really a sub-category of managing behaviour but the potential impact means we have given this a section on its own.

Section 1 - Governance matters >>

Updated: January 26, 2024