Constructive Versus Destructive Complaining

Posted by Todd Smith

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Psychologists say that people generally complain for one of two reasons—as a way of enlisting people to agree with their point of view, or as a means of making conversation since negative observations often yield a bigger response than positive comments. (Sadly, that is true.)

Today, I’m going on record as saying that neither of these reasons are valid enough to outweigh the fact that no one likes being around people who are chronic complainers.

Whining Damages Reputations

Whining is a childish trait and can be a very difficult habit to break once it has become a part of a person’s communication style. Nevertheless, breaking the habit of complaining is essential if we wish to be viewed as people whose words carry weight and whose opinions matter.

Some forms of complaints are obvious, but other forms are often disguised as commentary or critique. They may appear more subtle but are just as damaging to your reputation.

Complaint Etiquette

When you do have a legitimate complaint to communicate, you can do so in a productive manner by following these guidelines.

1. Have a purpose. Having an objective for complaining means that you wish to accomplish something that is both reasonable and specific.

Complaints without purpose include things like:

  • The way your favorite NFL team played on Sunday
  • The weather
  • The traffic on the Interstate

These things may bother you to a degree, but you can’t do anything about any of them, so why spend your time (and someone else’s) complaining about them?

2.   Offer a proposed solution. Whenever you complain, be prepared to offer a reasonable solution.

3.   Be understanding. People are not perfect and most employees are doing the best they can. It’s also important to recognize that what may be logical to you, may not be logical to someone else.

Make a point to accept and value the differences in people.  Recognize that we all come from different backgrounds and have different life experiences.  Specifically, have a little more patience; be a little more forgiving of others.

If you find yourself being overly critical of others or the world at large (which leads to the habit of complaining), let me encourage you to start being more aware of this and work on improving your attitude in this area.

4.   Treat others with respect and kindness. If you must complain in such circumstances such as being served cold food in a restaurant, discovering a billing error, or challenging a warranty discrepancy, describe your situation in a way that shows respect to the individual listening to your complaint.

Often times, it’s not their fault. And even if it is, there is no reason to speak to them like they are stupid or incompetent. Doing that will only make matters worse and reflect poorly on you.

How to Break the Destructive Habit

The good news is that breaking the habit of complaining is something we can all do on our own. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • For the next 24 hours, make an effort to catch yourself each time you complain—at home, at work, and out in the community. Being aware of your tone and how much you verbalize your dissatisfaction with other people or things is the first step toward ridding yourself of this bad habit.
  • Listen to the people around you, especially out in public. Notice how they speak to servers, customer service representatives, and other workers. What does this tell you about them? What does the way you speak to people in public say about you?
  • The next time you find it necessary to lodge a legitimate complaint, make sure it meets the criteria discussed above—purposeful, solution-oriented, understanding, kind, and whine-free.

Complaining is harmful to your reputation. If you must complain, make sure your words are constructive and that you handle yourself in a way that reflects positively on your character.

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About the Author:

Todd Smith is a successful entrepreneur of 34 years and founder of Little Things Matter. To receive Todd’s lessons, subscribe here. All Todd’s lessons are also available on iTunes as downloadable podcasts.


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