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The Art of Complaining

Posted 28th July 2020

“Often behind criticism, there is a wish.”  Esther Perel.

 – Sarah to Pete; “I’m so annoyed at Helen. She never communicates what she wants. She expects us to read her mind and when we don’t, she gets frustrated!”

 – Pete to Sarah; “Have you talked to her about it?”

 – Sarah; “No way, I don’t want to get fired!”

Is this scenario familiar? How often do we hear a colleague, a friend or a sibling complain about somebody else? 

In fact, we all complain on a regular basis. Research shows that 95% of us fail to complain directly to the person we have an issue with and choose instead to utilise the compliant ears of our friends instead. Most of the time, when we complain to a friend, we seek confirmation and approval from the listener (confirmation bias). We don’t want our beliefs and opinions questioned.


Our complaints reflect our perception of reality.

Esther Perel, a relational intelligence expert, argues that we have a tendency to react to other people’s behaviour; “She has avoided me all day”, “He made me feel so stupid.” Rarely do we examine how our own behaviour can impact other people; “I felt irritated this morning which could explain why she avoided me all day.” Therefore, we are more likely to focus on reacting to others’ behaviour rather than examining how our own behaviour can affect others. As Haris, the WEIRD philosopher said “Complaining is one of the ego’s favourite strategies. It reflects our own perception of reality and we are not willing to change it easily.” 

As Guy Winch, the author of the “squeaky wheel” explains, we understand that communicating our grievances directly is the most efficient way to complain. However, most of us think that this process would take too much time and effort, will end up in an argument and that we are very unlikely to change the person’s mind.

So instead, we whine to friends, repeating the same frustrating story and continuing to get irritated when telling the same story.


How do we complain productively?

First, before complaining, we need to establish what we want to achieve through the complaint;

 – Is it to vent, share our negative feelings and frustrations?

 – Or is it making sure that the other party listens and takes in what we have to say?

In the first instance, the person venting focuses on the process and should understand that this process won’t get a result, as “the tormentor” will either get very defensive or will just switch off.

In the second instance, the person focuses on the result. There is little to gain from sharing their negative emotions and therefore it is important to avoid the satisfaction of ‘winning’ an argument.


What are we trying to get out of our complaint?

In his book “Tiny habits”, B.J Fogg argues that information alone is not enough to change any behaviour in the long term. New behaviours have to be very specific and easy to do if we want them to stick.  

Therefore, before complaining, we have to establish what we are trying to get out of our complaint. This includes defining what we expect the listener to do after hearing a complaint. The answer may be; an apology, a promise that they will never do it again,  an explanation, a concrete way that they will make it up to you or an emotional connection.

This expectation is often fluid. It can start with “I want an apology,” and end up as “Actually what I was after was his recognition of my contribution.”

It can be helpful to understand why complaints are made. Esther Perel defines the 6 common themes that most complaints are built upon;

 – Power and Control

 – Care and Trust

 – Recognition and Respect.

These themes can help us define the core of our complaint. Do we want, for example, more recognition or more freedom (Control) or more transparency (Trust)?


The complaint sandwich

Having understood the ‘why’ it is important to think through the ‘how’. Guy Winch offers a step by step video guide to complaining. 

The first part of the sandwich, the piece of bread is “The ear opener”. That piece of bread is a positive statement that won’t trigger a defensive reaction from the listener. In our example at the beginning of the article, Sarah could go to Helen and say something like “I really value the trust you put in us but…” Depending on the listener, the bread can be more or less fluffy, perhaps one sentence is enough or a longer introduction may be necessary.

Then comes “the meat” – this is the core of the complaint. You have to explain why you feel hurt. It has to be short and specific and use the pronoun “I” instead of “You” to avoid triggering the listener’s defensiveness. In Sarah’s case, she could say “but sometimes, I find it difficult to understand what you want and it confuses me.”

Finally comes the last piece of bread that Guy Wynch calls “the digestive”. It’s a pointer at what both sides can do to rectify the problem. Sarah could say “Maybe next time I feel confused, I can approach you and verify I’m on the right track? Would that be acceptable for you?”


The advantages of the complaint sandwich

When you serve a complaint sandwich; 

 – You are less likely to trigger defensiveness from the listener,

 – You focus on the complaint itself which should be short and easy to understand,

 – Finally, as you offer a solution that is easy to apply, you increase the likelihood of a positive response from the other party.


How to eat a complaint sandwich?

In order for the complaint to be productive, the listener has to play their part in order to “get the message”, this includes;

1. Not interrupting the complainer – otherwise they don’t feel heard.

2. Verify that they understand why the complainer is upset. Often two  people can repeat the same argument over and over again because they are not understanding each other. In our example, Helen can interpret the reason for Sarah’s confusion differently than what Sarah intended to say. Helen may understand that she is setting expectations too high. Sarah may be trying to convey that Helen is constantly changing her expectations.

3. Acknowledge the complaint by paraphrasing what the complainer is saying and feeling. This way the complainer feels that they have been heard and their emotions are validated. In our example, Helen could say “I understand that you are perplexed by my management style and that you would like to understand the nature of your role. Did I get that right?”

Complaining directly to the person we have an issue with rather than looking for confirmation bias from our friends, identifying the goal of our complaint and our expectations, help us to frame the issue more clearly and efficiently. Complaining well not only leads to healthy conflicts but encourages both parties to feel empowered, assertive and effective rather than defeated, upset and powerless.

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