5 ways to diffuse a difficult situation

As a manager of a busy care home, there will always be times when difficult situations appear as part of your work.  Staff not getting along can be a common problem, or maybe there is a customer dispute.

Whatever your feelings on the situation it is important that you react in the most appropriate way to both sort out the issue and also to send a powerful message to those you work with that you are able to diffuse situations such as these quickly and effectively.  No one ever said that management was easy, but there are a number of different approaches that can help, and they might mean the difference between settling the situation amicably before it all blows out of proportion.

Take some time out
Simple but effective.  Walk away, take yourself off around the block, just set some distance between you and the problem.  Quite often problems can seem insurmountable in the workplace, tempers become heated and suddenly you are either in the middle of an argument or refereeing one!  You are all too close to the situation to think logically.  Whether you are dealing with a member of staff or a client’s family, tell them that you are going to leave the room for a moment so that you both have time to think.  If you are extremely lucky the issue may well be solved by the time you return!  However, even if this is unlikely, at least you will have taken some of the heat out of the situation and hopefully you can start to discuss it again on a more rational footing.

Keep it in perspective
Keep a sensible perspective on things.  Situations can become exacerbated and move away from the central issue.  All this can boil over and sometimes we lose sight of the actual problem amid the sea of emotion.  Although you must never trivialise a problem, sometimes it loses intensity when it is compared to other far worse situations.  We are all guilty of exacerbating situations so that they seem the most important things in the world, and on occasions we just need reminding that they’re not.  If you have ever faced death in the face, many of life’s other tribulations pale into insignificance.  There is no reason to be over dramatic but compared to life and death scenarios, you can help others see that most other problems can be minor and of little importance.

See people separately
As a manager, you will have to deal with your share of staffing difficulties.  If you enter into an argument with a view to being referee, it can suddenly become a three-way argument, and you are still unaware of the central issue.  Instead, see people separately.  Ask one party to come into your office or to step to one side and describe the situation – then do the same with the other party.  This not only gives each party the time and space to describe the situation as they see it, without the other butting in, but also allows a break in the conversations, a time to re-think and calm down.  Seeing people separately may also give you an insight as to any underlying problems, which they may discuss while talking with you on a one-to-one basis.  Follow this with a three way meeting focused on actions to be taken forward, and monitor the situation through supervision.

Adopt adult mode
Transactional Analysis (TA) is one helpful approach to dealing with difficult people and situations.  In essence TA recognises three basic states within which we operate; parent, adult, and child.  ‘Parent mode’ is demonstrated by rules and laws, and appears bossy and pushy.  In ‘child mode’, the individual can take on childish behaviour including sulking, tantrums and may be displaying over dependency on others.  The ‘adult mode’ is the rational mode where discussion is controlled, logical and rational.  It is only when both parties are operating in equal ‘adult mode’ that real progress can be made (think of problem solving in supervision).  We move between different modes in our interactions with others, dependant on the type of relationship we have with them.  It is difficult to remain in ‘adult mode’ during a explosive situation but it is important not to lapse into other modes, for example, providing a childish display of hurling personal abuse, or becoming the patronising parent.  This behaviour helps no one and is highly destructive.  An understanding of the different modes can help all staff to be aware of the game play that is going on and their need to revert to adult mode to make progress.

Go into mediation
To quell the number of cases reaching tribunals, mediation is now recommended as the first step any business should take towards resolving issues.  Mediation is focussed on sorting out the concern in a way that is acceptable to each party.  It can be a lengthy process, but can produce very positive results.  Essentially a trained mediator is called in to work with both parties, individually and finally together, to resolve disputes and commit to a positive way forward.  It encourages staff and customers to work through their problems and communicate as a method of resolution.  Mediation has helped staff who have previously been in dispute, to continue working together.  It is not a ‘quick fix’ or ‘cure all’ for all your staffing problems, but it is very effective in dealing with negative behavioural problems.

As a manager it is important that you avoid either getting personally involved or exacerbating the issue further. This does not mean backing down or accepting the behaviour, but always striving towards a positive solution.