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To Complain or Not to Complain

In coaching, one of the ways to help clients to achieve greater peace is to work to help them reduce the proportion of their day they are occupied with negative emotions, and one of the regular sources of negative emotion is complaining, especially complaining about particular others.

What is a Complaint?

What is a complaint? Merriam Webster gives the following definitions:

  1. expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction
  2. (a) something that is the cause or subject of protest or outcry (b) a bodily ailment or disease
  3.  a formal allegation against a party

The first sense of the term is the usual one in everyday usage, particularly the sense ofexpression of dissatisfaction.  To complain is to express dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and to lodge a complaint against a person is to express dissatisfaction with something they have done (or not done) or the way in which they have done it.

Are Complaints Like the Weather?

Now here’s the interesting part.  What is the usual source of complaining about others in our lives?  I hadn’t really thought deeply about this question and previously assumed that complaints were like the weather, something that just happens to us. In the same way that some days are sunny, and some days are rainy, I used to think that my complaining was a state of nature, and that some days just had more complaining built into them.  

I started to learn otherwise on the first day of my training as a coach at Georgetown (here).  Great coach Neil Stroul was our instructor that day, and he was talking to us about five types of speech acts (here): assertions, assessments, requests. commitments, and declarations, and that morning he was emphasizing the importance of clarity in request making as important in the coordination of human action.  In the middle of that seemingly abstract and fairly theoretical discourse, he asked us to think of a time when we had a complaint against another person.  He went around the room and debriefed a few individual examples, and then generalized the pattern as follows:

Complaints against others arise because you believe an agreement exists between you and another, but no request has ever been made. 

I thought about this and realized that, at least in my experience, Neil was right.  In thinking back over my own lifetime of complaining, I realized that most of the time my unhappiness was unjustified, because I had never made a request or my request was so fuzzy or unclear as to be extremely difficult to satisfy.  Of course, there were times when I had made requests clearly and well, and there were times were someone didn’t do what I had asked, but the frequency with which my complaining was completely unjustified surprised me, and from that moment forward, I resolved to (1) be more intentional about request making and (2) to make better requests.

Making Better Requests

To make better requests, first, signal you are making one by using a simple preamble: “I request….” or “May I request…?” Too much of the time we miss the mark oftentimes by being overly polite (“Would it conceivably be possible for you to….”) or indirect (“The trash hasn’t been taken out yet.”), and as a result, we risk that others will not recognize that a request has been made or our politeness suggests that it is OK to ignore the request without a response one way or another..

Second, make sure that you have the elements of a clear request in both the situation you are addressing and the words that you utter:

  • An engaged speaker.
  • An engaged listener.
  • A clear description of the thing requested.
  • A time of fulfillment of the request.
  • Conditions of satisfaction of the request.
  • A common context of the request.

These things and others are well described in the book, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (here), but the main point here is to recognize that much of the unhappiness that arises from complaining can be eliminated by simply recognizing the need to make more and better requests.

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