Manage Difficult Conversations One-on-One and in the Public Form

Written by Megan Asikainen

If managing citizen expectations and addressing conflicts is a critical part of your job reality, then take our advice.
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It goes without saying that people care about the place they call home. It makes them active, passionate, and opinionated members of the community. The passionate spirit of your citizens is an admirable characteristic until that spirit becomes dissatisfied and wants to complain. Loudly. For anyone in the public sector, managing citizen expectations and addressing conflicts is likely a critical part of your job reality, and it may be your least favorite part or your day-to-day responsibilities. For those moments where you answer the phone to a screaming citizen or find yourself leading a public forum in which tempers are flaring, follow these proven tips to diffuse conflict and ensure a positive resolution.

How to Manage Difficult One-on-One Conversations

When you find yourself in a one-on-one phone or in-person conversation with a disgruntled citizen, balance the conviction that the citizen’s anger is not personal with an understanding that you are a critical representative of your local government administration. Swallow any temptation to raise your voice in return and manage the conversation with an air of respect and responsibility. Then follow these best practices:

1. Start by Acknowledging their Feelings. The citizen may be disappointed about an error that was made that impacted them negatively. Alternatively, he or she may be frustrated about a policy or initiative in your community to which they do not agree. Regardless of whether they are calling about a fact-based issue or a subjective opinion, remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion and their feelings.

2. Use Your Body Language to Reinforce that You Care. If the conversation is taking place in person, maintain eye contact and demonstrate a sincere facial expression. Face the person fully, do not attempt to multi-task or start scrolling through your inbox while they are expressing their concerns. Visually showing you are attentive to their needs will reinforce similar statements that you make.

3. Give them Time to Express Their Concerns Fully. The goal here is not to cut the citizen off until he or she has fully explained their issue. It does not mean you need to let them keep you on the phone for an hour while they vent, expressing the same sentiments over and over. Listen fully to their story, once, and then move on to step number four below.

4. Focus on a Resolution. In addition to wanting someone with authority to acknowledge their feelings, an unhappy citizen wants to have their problem fixed promptly. Keep in mind that a frustrated citizen may already have in his or her mind an idea of what they would consider a resolution.

5. If You Can Not Provide a Resolution, Help Them Understand the Policy. If a citizen is angery over a new city initiative, or a policy they disagree with, your only recourse will be to (calmly) explain why the policy is in place, and how it benefits the community in general. Work with your communications team to create talking points you can refer to quickly for any topics that are frequently the subject of citizen frustrations.

6. Understand the Difference Between an Angry Citizen and a Disrespectful Citizen. No matter how frustrated a person becomes, they never have the right to threaten you or resort to insulting name-calling or profanity. If you ever feel that a citizen may be a threat to you or your administration, speak with your local police or sheriff’s department and let your local law enforcement experts determine if your interaction should be investigated.

After you end a conversation with an angry citizen—with a positive resolution—give yourself a brief break. Let go of any residual frustration or nerves you may be feeling after the conversation and continue to focus on the important service you provide to your community.

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How to Manage Difficult Conversations in the Public Forum

Managing sensitive issues or navigating conflict in public meetings can be one of the most challenging aspects of creating a successful civic participation strategy. To help ensure your meetings involve constructive exchanges that stimulate respectful two-way dialogue in which as much listening takes place as speaking, follow these tips.

1. Stick to the Facts. When data is available, support your perspective and help others understand it by validating your leadership’s perspective using statistically valid data.

 2. Convey Sincerity and Trustworthiness. Citizens want to believe that their public servants are making decisions from a place of public interest and good intentions—not from special interests. In all public actions, especially during meetings, make sure all representatives from your administration convey trustworthiness and compassion in everything they say and do. Such transparency and sincerity will help strengthen relationships and build rapport.

 3. Commit to Minimizing Negative Impacts. When relevant, commit to addressing citizen concerns by taking steps that will minimize disruptions. For example, if citizens are concerned that a new highway project could have a negative impact on the environment, commit to working with environmental specialists to take necessary precautions.

 4. Accept Responsibility. If a citizen is rightfully distressed about an event or policy that had a proven negative result, acknowledge their feelings, accept responsibility for the events that transpired, and shift the discussion to looking forward to future initiatives, whether they be preventive measures to ensure additional negative results do not occur or corrective measures to mitigate the results of previous issues.

For more tips on managing conversations and leading constructive dialogue in the public forum, click below to download our eBook, Best Practices for Holding Efficient and Engaging Public Meetings.

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Always remember that you cannot control other people’s emotions or feelings—only your own. Never let anyone’s anger or disappointment make you feel that you are not doing your job at the highest level or doing critically valuable work for your community. Our municipal clerks are some of our nation’s most vital resources, and for every citizen who calls you to complain, thousands appreciate the work you do every day. So keep calm and carry on.