Managers, at all levels, often tell me how little patience they have when they hear complaints from the people they supervise, how their disempowered nature drags them down. Those who get pegged as repeat complainers are often avoided by their coworkers.

Outside the workplace, I also hear the echo of all the times I’ve heard parents tell their children to stop complaining, often with an irritated tone of voice. There’s something about complaining that most of us find very unappealing to be around – unless, of course, we ourselves participate in that workplace “ritual” that, for so many, is the only way to get through the day. Even then, when asked, we all know that our complaining arises from a sense of powerlessness, of having little faith that anything will ever change. Somehow, it serves as an outlet, and some subtle agreement exists about when and how to start and stop.

I know that even when a friend appears to me to be complaining I find it challenging, even, maybe especially, if I love the person. One of my most significant friendships took almost three years to bloom because I kept some distance in my heart. I couldn’t bear to see her act in ways that seemed so powerless to me. Then, one day, almost by some miracle, a window opened, I saw her power, and a new world of friendship opened up for us. What’s most amazing is that since then I have never heard her complain any more, though I am sure she didn’t change her ways of speaking so much all at once. Rather, I think that what changed was between us, not in her. We co-created a new dynamic of engaging with challenges in her life. With both of us connected to and seeing her power, we found ways of responding that were novel, connected, and focused on moving towards what she wanted instead of what was happening that she didn’t like.

Nowadays, I work with people on both ends of the dynamic of complaining – how to hear someone else’s apparent complaint as well as what to do when they themselves want to discuss something they are truly unhappy about.

The Dilemma of Expressing Feelings

Far too many of us have been trained to believe that if someone is upset, that’s a problem to be solved, and that someone is at fault (possibly the person who is upset). The solution, within this version of human life, is to punish the offending party, or, at least, for that person to learn about the error of their ways and fix them. We somehow hold on to some illusion, rarely articulated, that if everyone did everything right, no one would ever be upset.

This makes feelings both difficult to hear and difficult to express. For example, in a recent workshop, we engaged in a role-play where one participant took the role of a teenager and several participants attempted to express something as the parent. At one point, one of the participants, while being the parent, expressed sadness to the teenager about how he had previously talked to him about the conflict they were having with each other. The teenager reacted to that by feeling guilty, as if she was made responsible for the parent’s sadness.

Knowing that this is how people often react to any expression of painful feelings, many of us then shy away from expressing them at all, which can result in inauthentic and even hostile relationships. During a recent conversation with a mid-level manager at one organization I support, the manager, let’s call him Derek, was talking with me about how much he was dreading an upcoming meeting. In a previous one with the same group, he was sitting through two hours of hearing a lot of anger from the other people, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen. It clearly became evident that part of what was missing in that meeting is that his voice and perspective were never heard. He explained to me why: “I am too concerned about what I would say if I started speaking.” Derek doesn’t want to speak precisely because he himself is so challenged by some of the issues going on, that he is afraid it would be too much for others. So he doesn’t say anything, and instead avoids the other people, which contributes to a cycle of mistrust that only intensifies their anger. Derek wanted to know what he could do instead, as he was tired of this stalemate with the very people he needed to collaborate with in order to do his job.

The paradox surrounding feelings is that on the one hand they contain invaluable information, because they point to something of great importance to us. On the other hand, expressing them without metabolizing them rarely gets us the results we want because the emotional charge, and the habit of hearing feelings as attack, are so deeply ingrained. The way forward and out of this difficulty is to do the work of digesting the feelings sufficiently before expressing ourselves. This often takes us to a deeper layer that is both more authentic and less challenging for others.

Derek, for example, found out, through further exploration, that one important message he had to deliver to this group was that it was really important to him that they all took a step back from the specifics of the project and focused, instead, on getting on the same page about why it was a priority. It was through listening to his feelings that he realized that unless everyone’s perspective and needs were on the table clearly, his as well as those of the group he was collaborating with, the project would fail. His own discomfort about not being heard then emerged as a key to understanding the deeper issues surrounding the collaboration challenges, namely that a fundamental conflict existed between the imperative for growth that came from above and drove the project, and the ferocious resistance to it from people who had a significant concern that growing would impair both the quality of service they provided as well as their own capacity to do their work.

Finding the Gem in Others’ Complaints

Derek would now be ready to go to his meeting and express the truth of his experience in an entirely different way. Where previously he had a complaint – “These people just beat down on me when I meet with them” – now he had a clear vision and suggestion for how they could all work together more productively. He could begin to imagine that by speaking openly about the concerns everyone had they would find their way to be on the same page. Even if people wouldn’t embrace the idea of growth, they would all be heard and understood, and could work together more effectively to make the best of it instead of seeing each other as the problem.

Derek didn’t find this path forward on his own, although it was entirely his. I talked with him and supported him in discovering it. This is something I often do when I facilitate – both in meetings and in workshops.

We can all learn to engage with those who come to us to complain, and to support them more effectively. Doing it requires taking a lot more initiative when we hear others than we usually do. What I did with Derek is something that can be practiced and mastered by anyone in a position of leadership. Instead of waiting for an employee to “become empowered” a manager can learn to hear through the “complaint” – either by imagining what it could be, or by guiding the employee to discover it, the way I did with Derek. Parents can also do it with their children, and all of us with our friends

It takes a conscious choice to overcome the tendency to back away from the person who “complains” and to close our hearts. If we can remember that this reaction is because we don’t see their power when they don’t see it, or because we take it as an attack – on us or on someone else – then we might be more able to breathe fully, open our hearts, and remember two things. One is that no one is to blame, only a human being who is in some discomfort. That person’s feelings are an alert system, not “a problem to fix” per se. When we can release the intensity of focusing on making the feelings go away and find tenderness and compassion instead, we become ready for the second part. The other bit to remember is that notion that the complaint, and the feelings it expresses, are only the surface. We can ask ourselves and the person who is expressing the feelings what is at the heart of it. When we shift our focus from the feelings and from what is not working and aim to help everyone direct their attention, instead to what is wanted, what everyone needs, and especially what piece of the vision this person sees underneath their unhappiness – that’s when we begin to find creative solutions for the real problems, under the supported leadership of the very person who was complaining in the first place.

It’s not always easy. At a recent meeting with middle managers it took me almost 45 minutes to get anywhere when they expressed dissatisfaction with upper management. Now I can see, in retrospect, that I was caught up in some protection of what I was trying to do with them instead of simply being with them where they were. They kept not feeling heard as a result. This is a deep lesson for me – that before I can support people in finding their power and a way forward, I need to find a way to be with them where they are, embrace their experience, and find that tenderness and compassion. What finally helped was shifting focus to the practicality of how they could express themselves to top management. When I modeled to them what they could say, they immediately saw the power of expressing their intention of offering their concerns as a form of support for the leader in question – a way of increasing the chances that her initiative would succeed – rather than complaint or criticism about what she was doing. However difficult it may be to find it, uncovering what we truly want and relating it, productively, to what others want, breaks the either/or frame in which so many of us are caught so much of the time, and frees up enormous amounts of energy to move forward together.

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