Blog and Media

Blog Posts

The Challenging Conversation Season

The beginning of the calendar year coincides with performance reviews and annual work plans. Often, people have a renewed spirit at this time of year and may decide to bring up things that have been hiding under the carpet for some time. It is, in that sense, a season for challenging conversations.

At the Office of the Ombudsman, we not only help to deal with conflict arising in the workplace, but we also hone skills and help personnel of the United Nations Funds and Programmes to address and manage conflict more effectively. Effective and appropriate communication is crucial in this process.

This month, we will be sharing some ideas and tools that the Office has found useful for the “challenging conversation season”, both for supervisors and team members who need to raise an issue. To start with, here is a short list of reminders:

  1. Clarity: Prepare to be clear and specific – include examples if possible.
  2. Empathy: Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. Remember the conversation is difficult for a reason. Active listening and emotional validation are important steps in an empathetic approach to the conversation.
  3. Balance: You may be rushed to get your message across but be mindful of the necessary balance between talking and listening. It can be useful to ask open-ended questions when that balance does not seem to be there.
  4. Adaptation: If you feel the situation is not turning out how you had hoped, be ready to adapt. Remember that the other person may be experiencing some emotions that prevent their mind and body from actually receiving the message that you prepared. Perhaps you will have to help them to feel understood and listened to; you may even have to pause the conversation and resume it at a better time.
  5. Solution-focused: Try to frame conversations with a forward-looking mindset. Blaming and exploring the past is often a waste of time and energy. Be ready to build a list of steps forward in collaboration with the other person.
  6. Follow-up: After the steps are agreed upon, following up is key. This is how conversations turn into action and action into improvement. Scheduling periodic conversations may also be helpful.

Stay tuned for more. Next week we will share the first episode of our “Ombudscast”, a podcast by the Office of the Ombudsman for UN Funds and Programmes on challenging conversations.


In this first episode, we discuss the following issues:


  • What do we mean by challenging conversations?
  • Why do we avoid having challenging conversations?
  • Balancing the need to have challenging conversations vs. the safety of not having them
  • A case example
  • The relevance of being equipped, and fundamental skills to have challenging conversations

Episode 2 – Navigating Life (and conflict) in the hybrid workplace, with James Lee

James Lee is one of the most experienced ombuds practitioners in the world, with vast experience in the United Nations. Having witnessed the transition in the UN workplace across technological shifts and through the Covid-19 pandemic, he has a particular view of the hybrid workplace, what it means to interpersonal relationships, and how to deal with its challenges more properly. In the end, remote work and hybrid set-ups are not going anywhere.


“What is your understanding of an Ombudsman?”

Street interview_still_final

…is one question we asked colleagues in New York. Watch the video to learn about their knowledge of and experience with the Ombudsman services.

So you have a problem at work?


Interview with James Lee: Pioneers of Organizational Ombudsmanry in International Agencies (2014, pp. 95-97).

English (PDF)

Interview with Mame Diagne & Helmut Buss: “Step into our office” – ombudspersons explain their role (2012)

English (PDF)

Interview with James Lee: Don’t shoot the messenger! A conversation with the Ombudsperson (2005)

English (PDF)

Interview with James Lee: Feel You’ve Been Unfairly Treated. Call the Office of the Ombudsperson (2004)               xxxx

English (PDF)

Interview with James Lee: James Lee, Ombudsman, shares tips (2004)                                                                  xxxx

English (PDF)

Interview with James Lee: The 2nd Annual Report of the Ombudsperson (2004)                                        xxxx

English (PDF)