If you are going to complain, complain right!
Most of you who have been reading my column for a while now know that my almost number one annoyance is people who engage in BMWC – bitch, moan, whine and complain. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of things to complain about today, God knows, but it’s how and to whom it is done.
For those who claim that you are not complaining, that you are just venting, and need to get things off their chest, I say, Fine! But, spare a thought for the person to whom you are venting. Some folks are problem solvers, and as soon as they hear a problem or a complaint, they immediately go into “helpful” mode and give you their best guess at how you can solve the problem.
This, of course, is extremely frustrating if you don’t have a problem to be solved but rather a situation to be shared. And, if you are not looking for a solution, no advice is ever going to be good enough. So, you begin with “Yes, but” and tell the person why their solution isn’t going to work. This little verbal volley can continue until one or both of the parties get frustrated and lapse into silence.
Honestly? The problem solver is thinking (but not saying) “If you don’t want my advice, then why are you telling me this? And the problem sharer is thinking, “How stupid do you think I am? I know what to do – I just need to talk this out with someone.”
If you are a problem sharing type of person, then find friends who are also problem sharers with whom you can relate your issues, problems and complaints because their first response will be, probably, “I know exactly how you feel”. And they do. And they will commiserate with you sharing their own experiences of similar situations and how they dealt with it. And at the end of the conversation you will feel understood and ready to do what you knew you had to do an hour earlier when you began the conversation.
Psychologists call these two types of complaining instrumental and expressive. The former is used to refer to that type of complaining that is designed to bring about change; the latter refers to that is commonly called venting.
A caution here, however, about engaging in venting. Venting, without finding some solution to your problem embeds the emotional response to the problem. The more you talk about the problem without arriving at a satisfactory conclusion the more entrenched your negative feelings become.
Complaining is NOT just gender based, although some research has shown that women tend to complain more about smaller things than men. I’ve often thought that men typically bond through teasing while women bond through complaining. If a woman says, “You won’t believe the awful experience I had with my boy friend last night”, her close woman friend will say something along the lines of – “Oh! I know how you feel – that has happened to me, too.” If a man says something similar to his best male friend, the friend is highly unlikely to say, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel – the same thing happened to me” (even if it did). Instead he will probably say – “Bummer! Sucks to be you, man. Whadda ya going to do?”
So how can you make your complaining more effective?
- If you want to vent, don’t do so to someone who is NOT a venter unless you announce that you just want to get something off your chest and you are not looking for a solution.
- Do not continually vent to the same people about the same things. As a matter of fact, don’t vent about the same thing to any more than 3 people. While most people are sympathetic the first or even second time they hear about a problem, after a while, even the most empathic and caring friends have reached their limits.
- Do not complain about people where there can be divided loyalties – that is, don’t complain about your partner to your kids; to your staff about one of their colleagues; to your colleagues about another team member; or to your friends about another mutual friend.
- Before you complain about anyone (or anything) try to honestly figure out what you really want. Better to present the complain as a problem for which you are looking for a solution. Better to ask someone “What do you think might work to get my mother to stop smoking in her house when we bring the kids over?” than to complain at length about how inconsiderate your mother is, how selfish and inconsiderate she is, and how she doesn’t think of anyone else except herself and her filthy habit!
- Complain only when you are calm and rational. Complaining in the heat of anger may well lead you to overstate your case or create a huge drama from which it is difficult to recover. Needless to say profanity seldom helps.
- If you are complaining about a commercial transaction that has gone bad, ask to speak with the manager or someone who has the authority to resolve the situation. Front line staff seldom have much room to negotiate or make up for the problems that you face.
- Focus on ONE issue (complaint at a time). Don’t fill a bag with complaints that you haven’t expressed for years and then, whoosh, dump them all at the same time.
- And finally, decide whether the issue you are complaining about is really worth the time and energy to have changed. Sure maybe something inconveniences you, but perhaps hundreds of others are well served by the problem that faces you. Should you, for example, complain about the smell of cigarette smoke in a taxi? In North America, for sure. In China? Good luck.