Resolving complaints with three important questions

by | Mar 18, 2018

Complaints are an everyday fact in local government. These range from complaints about the Council not collecting the rubbish and barking dogs next door, to more serious ones about Councillor misbehaviour or allegations of corruption. How a council responds to these complaints has a big impact upon the reputation of the Council and the trust the community has in the organisation. Here we share three important questions you should ask to effectively resolve complaints.

Why complaints go unresolved

Sometimes in addressing complaints, the person making the complaint can feel “fobbed off”, or worse still, completely ignored. This can happen for a number of reasons. One reason is that insufficient time has been taken to unpack the complaint.  Other times the person dealing with the complaint is not the right person, or not resourced, to do so.

Consequently, sometimes not enough time is taken to understand the reasons why the complaint has been made – that is, the needs and interests of the person making the complaint. These can often be overlooked in the rush to fix the problem or because it seems too messy to “open that can of worms”. This can lead to ongoing complaints and then disputes which escalate. As time goes on, these types of complaints become harder to resolve.

Case study of a simple complaint

Here is a simple example:

Council receives a complaint from a resident about the neighbour’s dog barking all day and night.

The person demands that Council make their neighbour buy a muzzle for the dog and keep the dog indoors.

The person is also unwell (although does not disclose this in the letter of complaint) and really just wants to have a quiet and private home so that they can rest and recuperate.

The person also feels that their neighbour is unfriendly and inconsiderate – why else would they let the dog bark all day and night?

Three elements of a complaint

This complaint can be broken down into three elements:

  • First, there is an interpretation by the complainant about the issue – this is their perception of what happened (or didn’t happen). This could be in the form of explanations, perceived motives, generalisations, judgements and assumptions. In this example, the person is assuming the worst about the neighbour.
  • Second, there is a position stated about what they want done – these are the demands, requests, principles and threats which are typically made as part of the complaint. In this example, it is the demands for action by Council even though Council may have no power to compel the neighbour to do any of these things.
  • Third, there are the interests of the person – this is often what really matters and sometimes the most difficult to understand. For example, what motivated them to make the complaint and what they want for the future. In this example, the fact that they are unwell is major driver of the complaint, albeit this unknown to the person in receipt of the complaint.

In this example, dealing with the person’s immediate demands may not be possible and Council may be inclined to view these requests as unreasonable or unimportant. Any response then becomes framed around this narrative resulting in a likely stalemate and dissatisfied resident. However, if time is taken to explore and understand the persons interests, there opens up the possibility for other solutions.

Sounds simple right? The reality may be a bit harder. But armed with the right questions, you should be well on your way to resolving the complaint.

Three important questions to ask about the complaint

Enabling someone to disclose their real interests and needs is not always straight forward. But it can be done with some skilful questions and the right approach. Firstly, you may need to spend time to really speak with them and listen to their concerns. In doing so, the key to uncovering interests is to ask “what is important to you about this concern?” and follow this up with a “why” question. You may also want to challenge their interpretation of events by asking the question “What other explanation could there be?”.

You may be surprised by the answers you hear and the solutions that you can then find.

In the example above, it may be a one off issue – the neighbour has gone away and the dog is being fed by the other neighbour. Or perhaps it’s not the dog at all and it’s just been a “bad day” that has resulted in making the complaint. Or perhaps the complaint is genuine, and by making the call you can really assist in providing a clear way forward.

Alternatively, the “fob off” scenario means that there may well be another complaint, then another and ultimately conflict which then takes much more time to resolve.

If you have an ongoing complaint that you are finding difficult to resolve, please contact Emma Broomfield our Director – Legal, Governance and Mediation, who is a nationally accredited mediator to talk about what to do next:

Emma Broomfield Director Governance & Mediation

Emma Broomfield

Director - Governance and Mediation

  0421 180 881



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