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Section 2 - Difficult for you

This section is aimed at individual staff to help them to deal with situations that they find personally difficult. In this context ‘difficult’ refers to anything which is making communication a problem. This could include factors which you may readily identify as difficult, such as anger or distress, but there may be other factors which are less easy to identify.

We can all experience difficulties when we don't know how to respond to behaviour or communication which is unexpected or challenging. Sometimes we can be unsure about how to respond to behaviour which confuses us or seem odd or disproportionate. We may find a person’s behaviour difficult when it does not conform with standards we expect or when it does not meet our values.

It is important to remember that there is a strong subjective element to this. Behaviour that you may find particularly difficult may not present the same difficulties to some of your colleagues.

The types of situations you may encounter when dealing with complaints and may be able to manage with support include:

  • anger
  • distress and upset
  • confused, illogical communication
  • someone raising concerns they may be a harm to themselves
  • repetitive and circular communication
  • unpleasant language which is below the level of abusive

By ‘manage’ in this context we mean ‘deal with appropriately’. The aim is to make your communication more effective and work better for both you and the member of the public.

This is about the ability to be professional and to be able to deal with the public in difficult (but not threatening or dangerous) situations. These are situations which may escalate and you should bear in mind that if at any point the situation becomes threatening or dangerous, you will need to move to a zero tolerance position and end the contact.

You may also need to end the contact and seek support, even if the situation is one you would normally expect to manage. Bear in mind that if you are in a situation where you are finding behaviour or your response to that behaviour, difficult to manage, it is highly likely you will be reacting in a way that may make the situation worse.


You may have colleagues who have particularly good interpersonal skills and you can learn a great deal from watching them.

It is important to debrief. Share experiences which have worked well or badly. If it is possible to do so - try to take a break and discuss difficult experiences with a colleague before your next contact. This will help to make sure you do not carry one bad experience into the next contact with the public.

Everyone reacts differently to different situations and by ‘trigger points’ we mean situations which will lead to a heightened reaction from you. This is perfectly normal. There is a subjective element to this, and it is important to be very honest with yourself about what you personally find difficult. This may surprise you as it may not be the same as your colleagues. If you think about conversations where you have later thought 'I wish I had said' or ones where you felt you needed a break before the next conversation, you may find a common factor.

A trigger point, then, is behaviour/language that consistently irritates or annoys you, that you find offensive or that makes you feel vulnerable and unsure what to do. You will have an emotional reaction. You may feel flustered or angry. You may find you tend to prejudge the person behaving in the way you find difficult.

When this happens, you are more likely to say or do something that later you feel was unhelpful or made matters worse. Even if you do handle the situation well, you may find the contact has been stressful and draining and you have less energy for the next contact.

In training we have been told that some people find it particularly difficult to deal with:

  • patronising or sarcastic language
  • someone being rude about colleagues
  • certain phrases that have been repeated to them too often 'I am a council tax payer' 'you are a public servant and are supposed to serve me'
  • someone who is very distressed and crying or threatening to self-harm
  • someone they think may be telling deliberate mistruths or is being manipulative


It is very unlikely that the person who pressed your trigger point knows this is a particular issue for you. They may not even be aware they are acting in a way that someone may find difficult. There may be many reasons a person is behaving in this way and you do not know enough about their context to judge this.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure you are not labelling the person. If you find you are defining the person as 'difficult'; 'obnoxious'; 'condescending'; 'weak'; 'needy' or 'over acting' in your head, that is likely to make your response more emotional. You should also be wary of becoming overly involved with someone you genuinely feel sorry for. This can lead to you feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties the other person is facing. Empathy is very powerful, and letting someone know you accept the feelings they are having may be appropriate, but if you want to help, you need to be able to remain calm and clear-headed. Positively, this can help the other person by creating a sense that there is a 'safe place' for them within which they are being listened to. In some circumstances, people can feel frightened by feeling out of control. Staying calm for those people can help them to calm down.

When it comes to particular phrases that may annoy or irritate you, remember that this may well be the first time the person has used this phrase and it may be something they are only saying because they have reached the end of their tether.

Once you have identified your trigger points, you know you need to make active efforts to relax and stay calm in those situations. You also may need to debrief: you can share with colleagues what you find upsetting or annoying and this may help you to manage the emotions. For your colleagues, if they do this, you should empathise with, but not reinforce, the emotional reaction.

In dealing with trigger points it can be useful to have a strategy or approach in mind. The SPSO uses cards for staff with some suggested strategies and approaches that they can skim through and use as prompts when on the telephone. This can help to build confidence, particularly for new staff who may worry they will forget what to do. However, it is important to remember that conversations need to be personal to be effective, and standard or clichéd phrases will likely have the opposite effect to the one you intend. These phrase cards are not meant to be used word for word, but it can be helpful to have some prompts or to be aware of language to avoid.


If there are areas you are nervous about - you can print out a prompt or have a selection of scenarios to hand.

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Updated: November 17, 2021