Dealing With Difficult Problems

There is no magic formula for resolving a difficult problem. The suggestions provided below may help you better understand the nature of a problem and help you develop steps for resolving it. Remember that the Ombudspersons are here to help you with difficult situations. You should never hesitate to contact us.

We are grateful to the University of Michigan Ombuds Office for many of these suggestions for how to deal with a difficult problem.

  1. Always try to solve a problem informally first. Many disputes can be resolved through informal discussions, and this avoids stressful, time-consuming, and adversarial official university procedures. Moreover, many (but not all) official university dispute resolution policies require such attempts.
  2. Focus on the problem, not the person. Be hard on the problem and soft on the person. You will have greater success if you see the person as a potential partner or resource who can help you solve the problem.
  3. Be assertive, but be courteous. Civil and respectful behavior goes a long way toward enlisting someone's cooperation in achieving your goal and solving the problem.
  4. Focus on the immediate problem. This is not the time to raise all of your complaints about a workplace, living situation or academic environment. You may raise those concerns in a different forum or at a later time.
  5. Prepare for your meeting. Know what you hope to achieve in any meeting that deals with a problem. Do you want a new policy or procedure instituted? Are you seeking an exception to an existing policy? Do you want someone's behavior to change? If you don't know what you want, you might not get it. Also, remember that the approach you take to deal with a problem may differ depending upon the nature of the problem and what you wish to achieve.
  6. If you are uncomfortable meeting alone, invite a third party to join you. This could include a friend, relative, coworker, colleague, mentor, human resource professional, or ombudsperson. Ask the permission of the person you are meeting with; surprising someone with additional participants is not a good beginning to a meeting.
  7. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Anticipate and consider other points of view. Most people truly want to be fair. If you understand the other person's perspective, you may discover a way to achieve outcomes that serve both your interests.
  8. If you do not feel comfortable talking with someone in person, send a letter explaining how you feel and what alternatives you think are appropriate. Enumerate each point you would like addressed, and ask for a written response to each point. If you forget an item or want to add something later, send an addendum.
  9. Be specific. When you make a complaint, list your concerns and ask for a response to each concern. This will help to facilitate an appropriate and complete response.
  10. Watch your language. Your tone of voice and what you say can work against you if you blame the other person or make that person feel defensive or hostile. Focus on the results of an action and how you've been affected, not on your assumptions about the motivations or intent of the other person. For example, students concerned about a grade might say: "I do not understand how you arrived at my grade; I believe I met the criteria outlined for a "B" for the following reasons . . . " This is more tactful (and effective) than saying: "You graded me unfairly." The first response states your concern and offers evidence to support your position; the second may be seen as whining or as an attack on the professor. This may end your conversation rather than lead to the conclusion you seek.
  11. Give people time to consider the issues you raise. Do not always press for an immediate response. Writing letters is one way to accomplish this. Let the other person know that you will contact them if you do not hear back by a certain date. Check back with people even if they deny your request at first. If given time to think, they may change their minds.
  12. Give yourself time to think about options presented. Don’t rush into a decision. Get feedback from others on what course of action to take.
  13. Do not send anything over e-mail that you wouldn't want repeated or "on the record." If you are involved with an issue of a confidential or sensitive nature, do not use e-mail at all. If you're inclined to use e-mail, do not send the message right away. Save it and send it after you've had a chance to consider the issue and check the message for tone. E-mail messages are often misinterpreted because they seem terse. You have to be careful what you e-mail to someone else. You should view it as a form of formal written correspondence.
  14. Keep your options open and do not burn bridges. Wait to submit your resignation or take any other irrevocable action.
  15. Be creative and open to compromises. When two parties have opposing points of view and nothing else has worked, the best solution may be a compromise.
  16. When it appears that someone has made a mistake in good faith, let him or her save face; give the person room to find a graceful way out.
  17. Keep a log (date, time, place, person, matter discussed) of anything that happens that is related to your complaint or problem.
  18. Follow the organizational hierarchy. If you have a problem with a person or unit, first go to that person or unit to resolve it. Writing letters to the Regents or to the University President prior to working your way through the organizational hierarchy does not ordinarily speed up the resolution of the problem and may alienate people who can help you resolve the situation.
  19. Find others who feel the same way you do about a situation; this often adds credence to your complaint. When working with a group, however, use extra caution so as not to put the person you are complaining to on the defensive.
  20. Pick an appropriate time to talk. Talking with someone in a crowded hallway or when you know a person is under pressure may not be the best time to resolve a problem or discuss a sensitive matter.
  21. If you are only seeking information, do not wish to pursue a complaint, or want a conversation to be confidential, state this initially so there are no misunderstandings.
  22. Resist the temptation to seek revenge. When someone involved in a disagreement decides to "teach the other person a lesson," it becomes very difficult to forge a quick and satisfactory resolution.
  23. If you believe that your concern may not be resolved in a satisfactory manner, talk to someone in the Office of the Ombudsperson.