Staff productivity
Oct 5, 2023

How to manage service users with challenging behaviour

Mark Topps discusses how to deal with challenging behaviour in adult social care settings, and shares 10 tips to managing service users and their relatives.

Mark Topps
Mark Topps
Regional Business Manager

Table of contents

We have all experienced supporting someone and feeling like you can never win. As a manager of that service, it’s hard to keep your staff motivated. As a staff member, it makes you reluctant to support that individual with challenging behaviour.  

I can mostly put aside people’s thoughts and opinions, especially if I know I am in the right or have done a great job, but the key is listening and effective communication. One of the best training courses I have done was on conflict management, aimed at shop staff dealing with unhappy customers, and it really opened my eyes.  

Here are my top ten tips to dealing with the more challenging interactions of both the people you support, and their families.

1. Stay calm and professional  

It’s normal to want to fight back and defend yourself when dealing with difficult service users, but this will only inflame the situation. The key is to remain calm throughout and not take it personally.  

Often when dealing with constantly unhappy relatives or people you are supporting, there is an underlying factor. It is this that you need to get to the bottom of and without remaining calm, this will never happen.  

2. Listen and empathise

If you don’t listen, this will only worsen the situation. Make sure you are actively listening and where needed, empathise with their concerns and frustrations. Some of the challenges are likely to be out of your control, such as lack of external resources or regulator guidance you must follow.  

It is important that you make note of the concerns, regardless how many times you have received a complaint from that individual. All concerns and complaints should be investigated with outcomes and lessons learnt.  

3. Acknowledge the situation

It is okay to agree with people, and by acknowledging the problem you are confirming with the complainant that you understand and have heard what they have said. It’s also valuable to apologise, as that one word ‘sorry’ can go a long way. You should take ownership of the apology, even if it wasn’t directly your fault.  

Additionally, let the person know what you are going to do with their concerns, so they know the next steps.  

4. Investigate and provide outcomes

I have mentioned that it’s important that every concern is investigated, and outcomes and learnings are shared. You should strive to find solutions to the problem, offer alternative resolutions and be transparent in what you have found.  

If you or your colleagues are at fault, own up to this. We don’t get things right every time, after all, we are all human. There will be occasions that the complainant will want something that you cannot provide, and it’s important that you are honest about this and signpost them to someone/somewhere that can support.  

5. Follow up and follow through

It’s important that you follow up on the complaint as this will ensure the complainant is satisfied with your response and the outcome. If there is further action, take this onboard, investigate and respond as needed.  

Let’s take a moment to reflect. The first five steps are mainly what should be in our complaints policy and procedures, but what happens when those individuals continue to complain or become more difficult?

6. Know when to escalate

There will be times when you just can’t resolve the issue, regardless of what you have tried and done. It’s crucial that you know when to escalate the complaint to higher authority. This may be your line manager, the social worker, the persons advocate or someone else. Knowing who and when, is key to ensure that you don’t break tip number 1 (staying calm) and act unprofessionally.  

7. Set boundaries

Whilst you need to acknowledge complaints and manage them, there are times when boundaries need to be set. Some families expect the world, and wouldn’t all of us for our loved ones? Sadly, this isn’t always possible with the resources you have, and often the family member will have a different opinion, meaning that you may have to set boundaries for acceptable behaviour.  

A relative or someone shouting at a staff member when they are unhappy is unacceptable and this needs to be highlighted straight away and boundaries put in place. You will have all seen signs in the bank, at doctors or in the hospital explaining that verbal abuse will not be tolerated. You, too, should take this approach and have clear procedures in place for dealing with challenging behaviours. Staff will need to learn the art of tactfully informing someone when their behaviour is not appropriate.  

8. Focus on feedback

Feedback is how we all continue to develop, so take time to reflect on feedback and consider the lessons learnt.  

Redact personal or identifiable data and share these with your team as case studies. Roleplay with your team about what they would have done in that situation. Are there things you would change if this happened again? Approach it with an open mind.  

9. Document, document, document

Documentation is key. If you haven’t recorded it, it didn’t happen – and whilst this is what we are taught, sadly when it comes to complaints and concerns, this is not the case. The problem won’t just disappear if it’s not recorded, it will come back during regulatory inspections or audits to bite you.  

Keep clear documentation ahead of inspections of what the concern or complaint was, what you did (the investigation), and your outcome. Also record what you have learnt, and the actions taken to prevent similar events happening in the future.  

10. Train your team

It may not always be you who is receiving the brunt of the concerns or complaints, so make sure your whole team receives training and understands the importance of training, as well.  

Look at conflict management training, blogs and resources like Log my Care’s, or support offered by your HR team or provider. Ensure you have a team who have the confidence to manage complaints.  


Remember, we will all come up against ‘that person prone to raising concerns’, but with the right approach, you can often turn around dissatisfied customers into loyal advocates.

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