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The Art of Complaining

How to use your words to get what you want and need from others.

Source: Pexels

Complaining for the sake of complaining does not improve one’s mental health or stress levels. In order to initiate change, we need to offer a constructive suggestion instead of a whining complaint.

Take Emotion Out of the Situation

Be factual. Take emotion out of the situation, if possible. Instead of complaining about how Mary is such an annoying coworker, for instance, be factual and share how Mary’s behavior impacts the bottom line.

“Boss, in order to me to be most productive, I need…” is much better received than is “I can’t take it anymore! This isn’t fair….”

Think Productivity

Remember that bosses want happy employees who are also productive. So, couch your complaint as a constructive suggestion that helps to improve the business or to increase productivity. Show that you are a team player with a focus on moving forward with the company.

Consider the Relationship

We need to recognize that our message may be different depending on the relationship that we have with the other individual. We also have to take into account the emotional state of the individual to whom we are speaking. For a friend, we might appeal to the depth and breadth of our friendship. She might be more apt to listen if we remind her that we have been good friends for so many years, and if we emphasize that our heart is in the right place with this feedback. For an employee, the individual might be more apt to listen if he understands that the boss sees great potential, and that by making these changes then he is moving in the right direction to receive a promotion (or to not get fired).

Apply the Sandwich Method

We should always apply the sandwich method when giving feedback. Start with something positive, then provide constructive suggestions for change, and then finish with something positive. The positive statements must be sincere, or the recipient will lose interest. Even if someone has really messed up, perhaps he put in a lot of effort into the task. So, before complaining, one might start by saying, “I can tell that you put a lot of effort into this….”

What’s in it for Me?

Adults ascribe to the “What’s in it for me?” principle. We want to understand how following this advice will benefit us. If you are telling a friend that she is acting like a bully, then emphasizing that you want to help her so that she doesn’t unintentionally impact other relationships will get her to listen and to take note of your good intentions. If you see that your colleague is doing something that might get her fired, sharing that you wish someone would have given you this feedback when you first joined the company may help her to listen without feeling defensive.

The key is to share that you are providing this feedback to help the other person. If possible, emphasize that it is not your intent to hurt him/her, but that you know that you’d want someone to share this with you, if the situation were reversed.

“Cheryl, I feel uncomfortable sharing this, but as your friend, I need to tell you something. And, I hope you’d do the same for me if the situation were reversed….”

“John, it can be tough to be the new person in the office. I’m sure that you feel that you’re always in the hot seat. I’ve been here for a while now and wish someone would have given me direction so that I was best set up for success….”

Productive Complaining is Healthy!

Complaining is healthy when the issue is bothering you so much that you cannot sleep or think straight. We shouldn’t cover up a physical pain and avoid going to a medical specialist to receive help. Similarly, we shouldn’t ignore something that is causing us emotional distress, especially if addressing the issue can bring us comfort. The key is to do so in a way that is productive for everyone involved.

Most issues in relationships, whether they be work related or personal, stem from communication problems. And, more often than not, after both sides take the time to clearly express how they feel, someone inevitably says that they wish that they would have spoken up sooner.

Complain to the Right Person

If you complain to the wrong person, then you can make the situation worse than it is. Let’s imagine that you are quite stressed about an impending deliverable for a client. If you complain to the client, sharing how you are overwhelmed or don’t feel that you have the manpower to complete the task with quality, then the client will lose faith in you. Further, even if you do create a killer deliverable, the client will always think in the back of his head that you didn’t have faith in the system or in your skillset. The client will likely go somewhere else the next time.

Remember the Rule of 5

Unsure if it is worthwhile to complain? Ask yourself, “Will this still bother me in 5 minutes? In 5 hours? In 5 days? In 5 months? In 5 years?” If the issue that is bothering you won’t bother you in 5 minutes or 5 hours, then let it go. But, if it is something that will impact you for days, weeks, or months on end, then it is worth it to approach the person and to share your feedback constructively, so that you may move past the situation in a healthy manner.

More from Amy Cooper Hakim Ph.D.
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