Managing difficult situations with consumers

This fact sheet provides information about how to manage difficult conversations and complaints; and how to escalate issues that may arise with consumer partnerships.

Consumers make an important contribution to our health system because they highlight positive and negative experiences. Working with consumers allows us to learn from the past to continuously improve services. When you listen to their stories, you may hear complaints or learn about events that require further attention.

Responding to a difficult situation

If a consumer becomes distressed while sharing an experience, remember that the wellbeing of the individual and other staff members is the most important priority. Remain calm and professional and ask the person if they would like to take a break.


  • ask what they are thinking and feeling
  • listen without judgement or interruption
  • reassure them that you want to hear what they have to say
  • ask open-ended questions to find out more
  • summarise and clarify important points to ensure these are understood
  • express empathy and thank the person for sharing their feelings
  • acknowledge that sharing personal experiences takes courage.

Do not

  • argue or debate with the person
  • minimise the person's problems or experiences
  • give artificial reassurance, such as “cheer up” or “everything will be all right”
  • interrupt with stories of your own
  • communicate a lack of interest or negative attitude through your body language.

At the end of the discussion, give the person contact details for someone who can provide psychosocial support.

Responding to complaints

If you hear a consumer complaining about an experience or an event, check if the person would like to take the matter further. If they do, refer them to a relevant person or authority who can process the complaint appropriately.

Appropriate avenues for complaints

Every local health district (LHD) or specialty health network (SHN) has established pathways for consumers to make a complaint. This may be the manager of the service, the clinical governance unit, a consumer participation manager or complaints officer. Provide the relevant local contact details to the consumer.

You can also provide the consumer with contact details for the NSW Health feedback page and advise them that they have the right to make a complaint to the Health Care Complaints Commission.

Escalating information and issues

On rare occasions, you may be required to disclose information provided by patients and/or carers which would otherwise remain confidential. Under NSW Health policy, all staff are compelled to report information that involves serious misconduct or negligence by a staff member or matters of child protection. The Participant information sheet provided to all patients and/or carers involved in co-design projects, clearly outlines this information.

If you are unsure about disclosing the information, seek advice from your manager. Remember, the identity of the participant and the facility involved must remain confidential.

All staff have a responsibility to be aware of relevant policies related to issues which may arise in a focus group discussion. These are available on the policy page of the NSW Health website, using the search terms “escalating concerns” and “incident management”.

If you decide the information should be disclosed:

  • refer to, and follow, the NSW Incident Management Policy
  • take a personal note or record the actions that you have taken and confirm this with your manager
  • if you have any other concerns or questions, contact your patient safety officer and line manager for direction.

Psychological safety for consumers and staff

Be mindful that consumers may remain emotional after the discussion. Where this is the case, it is important that you:

  • stay with the person until they have calmed down and you are sure they are feeling comfortable
  • check on them via telephone later that day or early the next day
  • follow up with a second phone call if a person is particularly distressed
  • tell your manager if you suspect that a person may need more support or help. Your manager will be able to recommend options.

Just like consumers, you and other staff members may experience a range of emotions during a discussion. If so, it is important to acknowledge and accept your own emotional state. Organise for a suitable colleague or supervisor to be available to talk to you or your staff members, as needed.

Ensure that any emotional feedback is channelled into constructive criticism and shared with health service managers.

Key contacts for management of complaints

NSW Health

Feedback page

Health Care Complaints Commission

Locked Mail Bag 18
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012


Toll free: 1800 043 159

NSW Ombudsman


Toll free: 1800 451 524

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