The Power of Complaining Properly

Recently I’ve started listening to a new podcast all about the brain and behaviors called Hidden Brain. It’s got a lot great content and you should totally check it out. One of the latest episodes deals with complaining and how it can make us less productive and more likely to repeat patterns or shut people out.

Complaining is as old as language. I’m sure as soon as the first person to create communications around spoken words was able to teach another person one of the first things they did was complain about the weather or something they hated. Our mind is built to express itself about things we don’t like, such as bad drivers or silly behaviors at work.

The episode explores the ways that our brain can trap us in cycles of complaining simply for the sake of complaining. It also discusses how we should try to spend more time trying to be productive in how we address complaints. I’ve experienced this a lot in IT as well as in my career after being directly involved in IT and there’s a lot of merit in changing the way we complain about things.

Airing Grievances

Complaining without a suggested solution is just whining.

I’ve always found complaining just for the sake of complaining to be counterproductive. Sure, it might feel awesome to just let it all out and pick apart someone’s decision making process or their personality but that’s not sustainable long term. As in the episode above when you spend your time complaining just for the sake of complaints you eventually fall into a pattern and you can’t break out of it. We all have that one friend or coworker that comes to us and complains about stuff no matter what, right?

In part this happens because we create an agreeable environment for it. That’s not always a bad thing. People sometimes just want to complain. If you’ve ever had to deal with someone getting upset because you didn’t just agree with their complaints you know how that can go. There are those in society that would rather just let it all out without disagreement or challenge.

The opposite side of that situation is when someone is challenging our assumptions or forcing us to see things in a different light. I’m sure that everyone reading this can think of someone they know that will show them another side of the argument or help them understand the path to solving issues instead of just whining about them. This person is someone you may not go to all the time because you realize they’re going to make you confront what’s going on instead of just agreeing with it.

We cultivate both of these kinds of people in our circles. We have those we will commiserate with and those we will seek out for help. So how do we manage to spend more time on fixing issues instead of just falling into the patterns of whining and regressive behavior?

Outcomes Over Opining

The first key to figuring out how to break out of the cycle and focus on making this better is a trick I use with others that only want to complain about things in my presence. They want to tell me everything that’s wrong, or more accurately what I’ve done wrong. So I ask a simple question:

How would you like this situation resolved?

It sounds almost too simple. However, if you think about the above examples you realize there are those that simply want to complain. They may not have a solution in mind. Think of those on social media that just want to air their grievances about a company or a person on a perpetual basis. Are they looking to change the situation? Or would they just prefer to complain? Once you ask the person, or ask yourself, how they want the situation resolved then you’ve moved past complaining to a solution.

Once you’re able to break out of the complaining loop you need to keep the conversation focused on the outcome. It’s easy to slip back into complaining and whining mode when you lose sight of the goal. If the solution is to recognize that things need to improve work on the plan of improvement. Have a goal in mind. Is the solution to have better service in a restaurant? Or to not have something cost so much if it is of inferior quality? By making the outcome the focus you channel the negativity into something that can be positive. One other side effect of the focus on the outcome is that continued complaining will fall on deaf ears and usually shorten the conversation. Even if the person has a solid outcome in mind they’ll lose interest if the sole purpose of the conversation is venting instead of productive work.

Lastly, understand that this is really focused on complaining on a non-personal level. Personal discussions are often not going to have an outcome in mind. Maybe the goal is to just vent. That’s why I usually ask now if I’m serving as emotional support or problem solving. However, in a business environment the goal should be the outcome. Especially if it’s a conflict or a complaint from a team member. The goal should be reducing friction and not just being a sounding board for those that would rather expend energy on the problem and not the solution.

Tom’s Take

I complain, just like any other normal person does. Sometimes my complaints are just ways to get my emotional weight off my shoulders. However I have always subscribed to the idea that I need to have an outcome in mind to fix what is causing my issues. Sometimes that outcome is far outside of my control, such as fixing someone’s personality. Other times it is very much in my control but will require work on my part to make it happen. That’s where I always ask myself how much I want this issue resolved. I make sure I’m ready to invest the energy to make it better before I even start.Odds are good that if I’m complaining I’m talking myself into making it better. To me, that’s the power of a proper complaint.