Handling difficult situations

Complaint Handling – 5 Quick Tips

1. Show respect

A large part of your role as an academic administrator is to help others address and resolve interpersonal conflicts, managerial challenges, and instances of poor communication. By showing respect to each person involved in these workplace disputes, you model the kind of behavior that you hope each of them will adopt. And that will go a long way toward creating a more harmonious workplace.

2. Put your visitor at ease

When someone approaches you with a complaint or concern, your first and best step is to put your visitor at ease. Welcome the visitor into your office, and make sure he or she is comfortable. Let your visitor begin the conversation. You can expect the visitor to be anxious, confused, upset, or even angry. The more that you can control your own emotions, the better you will be at engaging your visitor.

3. Engage in active listening

Your primary role is to listen. This does not mean you can sit back passively hoping that your visitor will tell you everything that you need to know. Rather, you will need to demonstrate that you are authentically trying to understand the contents of the problem or issue as well as its emotional context. If your mind starts to wander, and if you appear disinterested, your visitor will conclude that you are either unable or unwilling to provide assistance.

Here are some basic techniques of active listening

  • Ask open-ended questions to understand. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions might start with “why” or “how.” Here are some examples: How did this problem arise? What happened next? Why do you think you received this kind of reaction?
  • Ask close-ended questions to confirm what you have heard. These questions can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” When you ask a close-ended question, you are able to validate—in summary fashion—what it is that you have heard. You are not agreeing or disagreeing with what you heard. Rather, you can use a close-ended question to confirm what it is you have heard. Once you have heard your visitor’s concerns, provide a short summary, and then ask, “Have I captured your major points, here?”

4. Take notes

It is always a good idea to take notes, first explaining to your visitor what you are doing and why. Note taking helps you recall the major points of the problem. Notes can help you identify what aspects of the problem are important in the narrative presented. Your notes should cover what is said to you and not include your comments or judgments about the concerns shared with you. When you ask a closed-ended question to confirm what you have heard, your notes will help you quickly summarize the main points.

5. Set time boundaries and explain the next steps

From the perspective of your visitor—whether an employee or colleague—the problem or complaint can feel enormously complex, difficult, and perhaps even overwhelming. When you set time boundaries, you explain the next steps and provide a framework for how the problem will be addressed. Typical next steps include speaking to the other people who know about the issue, reviewing relevant materials, and researching the university’s rules and regulations. When you do what you said you would do and within the time frames you established, you provide a structure for resolving the issue. With an agreed structure for tackling a tough problem, the complaint no longer seems unsolvable.

©C.K. Gunsalus, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2016

Additional Material

Complaint Handling: Quick Tips (PDF)

Conflict and Dispute: Quick Tips (PDF)

Confidentiality and Transparency:  Quick Tips (PDF)

Personal Scripts:  Quick Tips (PDF)

Delivering Difficult News: Quick Tips (PDF)

Delivering Difficult News – Annotated Bibliography  (PDF)

Complaint Handling Guidelines (Executive Briefing)

Complaints from External Constituents (PDF)

Andrew Alleyne on Handling Complaints

Andrew Alleyne on Personal Scripts

Andrew Alleyne on Delivering Difficult News

Michael Loui on Having Difficult Conversations

Rob Rutenbar on Personal Scripts


Rob Rutenbar, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Pittsburgh, describes how he uses this important leadership tool.

Rob Rutenbar on Delivering Difficult News


Rob Rutenbar, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Pittsburgh, offers his views on how to give someone news that may be hard to hear.

Richard Wheeler on Personal Scripts


Richard Wheeler, former Provost for the University of Illinois, describes his experience in using personal scripts in leadership.

Barb Wilson on Difficult Conversations


Barb Wilson, Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois, provides advice on how to handle a difficult subject.

Kendall Zoller on Techniques for Delivering Difficult News

Complaint Handling (Video)


A department head hears a complaint from a staff member regarding a high-profile professor. The department head demonstrates effective intake of a complaint.

Difficult Conversations – Troubled Waters

Difficult Conversations – Mixed Reactions

Difficult Conversations – Good Practice

Critical Friends


How to use critical friends to assess your ability to handle difficult situations and conversations.