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The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Complainers

There are ways to get attention, and ways to get ignored. Learn the difference.

How would you like to improve your mood and self-esteem, build stronger relationships with friends and intimate partners, and get satisfaction when you're stuck with a defective product or poor service?

According to psychologist Guy Winch, here's what to do: Complain, complain, complain!

The trick: Complain the right way—the assertive way—so that what you say is effective, kind, and fair. Only some squeaky wheels get the grease.

Complaint maven Winch, a fellow PT blogger, has written The Squeaky Wheel, now out in paperback, to help you complain like a champion. His topics run the gamut from "squeaking" at customer service people, to standing up for yourself in relationships, to making the world better just by strategically kvetching about it.

(By the way, how many complainers does it take to change the world? You'll find the answer at the end of this post.)

Here, briefly, are 9 habits of highly effective complainers:

  1. Voice one complaint at a time. Too many issues will overwhelm the listener. What's really important to you? Focus on that first.
  2. Practice! Start with easier complaints and work your way up to more meaningful ones.
  3. Identify the person who has the power to make the changes you seek; then complain to that person directly. I hate to think of all the times I've launched into a lengthy complaint, only to discover that I was squawking to the wrong person. Rather than feel like an idiot, just ask at the outset: "Who do I need to talk to in order to...?"
  4. Before you voice your dissatisfaction, identify exactly what you hope to gain. What is your goal? How will you know if you've been successful?
  5. Before you complain, get your anger under control. Yes, that's difficult. And you may have a perfect right to be angry. But if you spatter hot fury all over the recipient of your complaint, he or she will focus more on your venom than on helping you. Remember: You want to achieve your goal, not just vent.
  6. Whip up a "complaint sandwich." Start with an ear-opener—something that will help the recipient of the complaint become sympathetic. Add the meat—your actual request for redress of your grievances. Finish it off with a digestive—words that will increase the listener's motivation to help you. Short example: "I've been a customer of Slipshod Corporation for 5 years, and I've generally been happy with your service. Last month I noticed an extra charge on my account for a service I never ordered, and I would like that removed. I would really appreciate your help with this."
  7. Admit your part of the problem, if you do have some culpability in the matter. Your honesty will reflect positively on you, make your claims more believable, and perhaps even inspire some reciprocity.
  8. Resist the temptation to become a chronic complainer, lest you slide over the slippery slope into victimhood. Choose your issues: Some complaints are simply not worth your time and trouble. Let them go!
  9. Become mindful of situations when compliments are called for. Give specific feedback about what you liked, and hopefully you'll get more of it in the future.

The benefits of effective complaining are legion. In Winch's words:

"Speaking up about a complaint and attaining a resolution makes us feel empowered, assertive, effective, and resourceful. It can boost our self-esteem and enhance our feelings of efficacy. It can help us battle depression, improve our relationships, salvage partnerships, and deepen friendships."

Speaking up to your doctor may even help you save your own life.

As you roll along with The Squeaky Wheel, you'll learn why we must refuse the pity of others, why it's good to be a slow talker when you complain, why and how to handle call center employees with civility, and how to eat a complaint sandwich when someone is "squeaking" about YOU. There are special sections on complaining to loved ones, using social media, and making your neighborhood—and the world—a better place.

Winch's book is not only helpful; it's positively entertaining. His stories are memorable as well as funny, perhaps because, in addition to being a psychotherapist, Winch moonlights as a stand-up comic. It's rare that I can say that I chuckled my way through a self-help book, but I did through this one. My only quibble: I would have preferred a few more assertive phrases and scripts to try out.

So, how many complainers does it take to change the world? One could be an anomaly. Two could be a coincidence. But three constitute a trend. That's good news: If you have two good friends, the three of you have enough leverage to move the world—or a piece of it anyway. And if you need a little "complaining therapy" first, I highly recommend The Squeaky Wheel.


Winch, Guy, The Squeaky Wheel (2011), NY: Walker & Company.

© Meg Selig

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For short updates and tidbits on topics of habit change, willpower, and motivation, please "like" me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.

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