Saturday, January 29, 2011

Complain Well

(News-Herald, January 27) As much as human beings like to complain, you’d think we would be better at it. But there are many folks who remain remarkably ineffective as complainers.
There’s a script that seems to play in people’s head: I will tell him how outraged I am and horribly wrong he is. I will verbally kick him in the keister, and he will suddenly cower and declare, “Heavens, but you are so clearly right and I am so clearly wrong. I bow before your verbal mastery, and I will crawl on my knees to fix my terrible wrongness.” And yet, it never happens.
There are a few simple things that people can do to be better, more effective complainers (there are also things complainees should do, but we’ll tackle that list another week).
First, figure out what effect you want. There are times in life when you have a choice between saying what you really want to say and getting the result you really want to get. You can have one or the other, but not both. Before you start complaining, decide which one you want. If you just want to rant and rave and vent your anger, that’s fine. But you’re unlikely to end up with the result you want, so you can safely ignore the rest of this list.
This is why people are reluctant to enter local politics or school sports officiating—too many people who want to unload on officials like an angry drunken internet troll. These sorts of complainers never accomplish anything except making complainees very tired.
Own your complaint. There’s nothing less effective than the anonymous complaint. It is hard to convince somebody that you are standing in the courage of your convictions when you don’t have courage enough to say who you are.
Complaints are hard to dismiss when they come from real, live flesh and blood humans; they are easy to dismiss when they come from anonymous shadows.
Stay focused. What, exactly, are you complaining about? Stick to your point so that your message doesn’t get muddled. This is a good rule of argument in general—if you want to complain about the serving size of the gelato, it doesn’t help to observe that the server always has been a cheap jerk. If you want a refund from a business, don’t wander off into a discussion of how stupid and ugly the owner is.
Broadening your attack increases the collateral damage. In the midst of disagreement with me over a service being provided, a gentleman added the observation that I am a well-known Big Fat Jerk. The misunderstanding about the service was settled fairly quickly, but the observation about my disreputable character (accurate or not) was then impossible to retract.
“There’s not enough mustard on this hot dog,” is easy to erase. “I always have hated your mother,” is not.
Losing focus makes it easy to lose sight of your actual complaint. Once we’ve opened up the issue of how much you hate your mother-in-law, mustard serving size will quickly fade into the background.
Why should they care? County commissioners and city councils are often subjected to constituents who believe these officials should care about a pet issue. You can’t really address whether or not to start a meeting with prayer until you get people to see why the question even matters.
Know what you actually want. Many complaints are a burst of bluster followed by an awkward silence. The silence is because the complainee is too smart to say what he’s thinking, which is something along the lines of, “Yeah, so…?” or “What do you want me to do about it?”
Sometimes the complainer wants the impossible. “Get in your time machine, go back to last week, and say different words,” is not possible. “Die and/or get off the planet,” is not likely.
Knowing what you are complaining about matters, but simply sputtering, “That really bothers me!” invites the complainee to respond, “Bummer. Hope you feel better soon.”
What you want doesn’t have to be concrete. “I want you to understand that this was a real problem for us,” is good enough, perhaps even more motivational than, “I want you to give me a pile of money to improve my mood.” But if the complainee is on his A game, at some point he should ask you, “What can we do to make this right?” If you don’t have a reasonable answer to that question, all of your well-crafted complaining will have been wasted.

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