How To Complain Less (& Better) At Work

Monthly Challenge #4

How To Complain Less (& Better) At Work

Anyone who's ever worked with me knows I love to complain. My ability to complain is second only to my ability to fall asleep anywhere at any time.

I can complain about the weather, unnecessary tasks, hypocritical bosses, coworkers who complain too much... you name it.

And I'd be lying if I said this complaining didn't provide me with a perverse sense of satisfaction.

That said, as someone who also prides herself on self-awareness, I'll be the first to tell you that this tendency isn't always healthy. We shouldn't bottle up our emotions, but there's also a point at which a deluge of negativity and critiques is no longer constructive.

As a die hard The Fault in Our Stars fan, I firmly believe that, "Pain demands to be felt." And a part of the process of feeling and validating the emotions we're experiencing is often venting (a.k.a complaining)... so I don't think we should aim to do without it all together.

That said, I do think many of us could stand to complain less and better.

Fast Company wrote an article about the topic ("What It's Like To Go Without Complaining for a Month") and reached a similar conclusion - that going cold turkey on complaining isn't practical… but there are two very compelling reasons why we should all aim to be more mindful about how we complain, especially in the workplace.

  1. Each time you complain about an incident, you relive the stress it caused you - you might think that complaining is cathartic, but studies show that when we complain, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol… this response is great if you're running away from a bear, but can actually be detrimental to your health in the long-term if you're experiencing chronic stress.
  2. Complaining (and its effects) are contagious - nothing unites a group of people like a common enemy or complaint… but just because you're united by your shared gripes doesn't mean you're positioned to be happier or do better work as a result. Because we're wired to jump on the bandwagon when one person complains, its impacts are quickly amplified… and the people who are just listening to the complaints can also experience the stress of the complainer. Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, actually likens the effects of complaining to secondhand smoke.

So when we complain, we're not just impacting ourselves, but also the person we're speaking with… and in the workplace, complaints can spread like wildfire, stressing everyone out and making the whole group more negative. You don't need to blindly drink your organization's Kool Aid, but you should consider the larger impact you might have before you go off on your next rant about your boss.

Two somewhat well-known "complaining challenges" already exist - Complaint Restraint (1 month cold turkey, no complaining) and the 21 Day Challenge (in which you wear a bracelet and switch hands each time you complain).

While admirable, I think both of these challenges are a bit impractical, so I've devised my own, inspired by my own experiences as a chronicle complainer, and Fast Company's article, which also offered tips for complaining in a healthier way.

The goal for this month's challenge is not to stop complaining all together, but to follow these 4 rules for complaining better and less so that our complaints have a less detrimental impact on ourselves and others.

Unlike other challenges, your close friends and colleagues will be the first to know if you're not following through, so the accountability is baked right in!

Read through the guidelines below, and come April 1st, get ready to change your complaint mindset! Let us know how you're doing by tweeting us @PowerToFly.

April Monthly Challenge: How To Complain Less at Work (& in Life)

1. Be mindful.

The first step with any problem is acknowledging it. Aim to be more aware of when you complain and why.

You can move a bracelet from one wrist to the other like they do in the 21 Day Challenge, or you can try my approach - leave a sheet of bubble wrap on your desk/wherever you spend most of your time, and pop a bubble every time you complain. At the end of the day/week, you should have a good visual representation of how many times you complained, and you'll also get the stress relief of popping bubble wrap (who doesn't love that?). Use it as a visual reminder of the value of expressing your emotions and then letting them go, rather than ruminating indefinitely on negative experiences.

2. State your purpose & be considerate of who you're complaining to.

I can't tell you how many times I've gone off on a rant to my boyfriend, only to have him pepper me with tangible solutions I know I could've thought of. And then I scream, "I just needed to vent dammit!!!"

This isn't constructive for either of us. Especially because my negativity can bring him down, too, and he likely had good intentions with the solutions he offered.

So… what can you do to avoid this? State your purpose at the outset and be considerate of your listener.

If you say, "I just need to vent for 5 minutes, do you mind listening?" you're preparing that person and managing both of your expectations. You can be explicit about the fact that you're looking for emotional support, not tangible solutions.

Be respectful of the other person's emotional bandwidth by asking if they have the time and energy to listen to your problem, and don't take it personally if someone says it's not a great time.

Also, setting caps on the amount of time you'll vent for can be helpful to make sure that venting remains cathartic and doesn't enter the territory of "I'm going to stress myself out about the same problem over and over and over again."

If you say "5 minutes," check your clock and actually hold yourself to 5. If you need 20, say 20 at the outset. Be realistic.

Finally, if emotional support isn't what you need, and you're actually looking for solutions, be clear about that as well.

Saying, "I just had a really difficult conversation with a client and I'm frustrated about the way they spoke to me. Can you please help me craft a response?" prompts a very different conversation than, "I freaking hate this client, they're always on my case!!!" The former lets your listener know that you want their help with a solution.

Similarly, if you've been wronged, approaching the conversation with clarity of purpose will help you get what you want out of the exchange. My mom taught me from a young age that if you're going to complain, always have your ask ready. We applied this mainly to frustrating customer service experiences (e.g. "You spilled wine on my shirt, so I'd like you to give me $45 dollars so I can buy another."), but you can certainly use it for all sorts of interpersonal experiences.

People often won't know how to help you or remedy a situation, so if you tell them what you want, you often get it.

3. Be solution minded … and complain to the right people

Very closely related to knowing the purpose of your complaint is being solution minded and complaining to the right people…

Complaining less/more productively shouldn't mean you spend less time looking for solutions to problems or offering constructive criticism.

Finding flaws and proposing solutions is how we make things better. Think of it like a marriage - if something bothers you and you care about your relationship, you'd call attention to it and propose a solution. You'd fight for your relationship. But if you 1) don't mention it at all, 2) mention it but offer no solutions or 3) talk about your issues with everyone but your significant other, you're dooming the relationship to fail.

If something ticks you off, you can vent briefly to a friend at work to let your emotions cool… but rather than repeating the complaint 5 more times to other coworkers who aren't in a position to help you, collect your thoughts, determine what change can be made, and then talk to the relevant party with a solution in mind.

For Example

Not long ago I found myself complaining that I didn't get credit for an idea... by the time I was whining to friend #4 about my misfortune, I realized acutely how unproductive this was. My feelings had already been validated - 3 people had told me I should have been given credit for my idea and that it was unfair. Why did I need a fourth to tell me the same thing?

It turns out I was still seeking validation... and the best way to get this validation was to talk to the right person and do the work to get credit for my contributions. So I put together a presentation to help bring everyone up to speed on what I'd been doing -- and guess what happened? I not only got the validation I was seeking, but I actually provided useful information to my coworkers. Much more constructive than stewing indefinitely.

4. Reframe the complaint: "Yes, but…"

Finally, practice reframing your complaints and see how this changes your mindset.

The first rule of improv is, "yes, and" - meaning you take whatever the other person has said, accept it as truth, and add to it.

When it comes to complaining (and listening to others' complaints) I'd advocate for the inverse: "Yes, but."

The "yes" is important because before you can reframe the complaint, you need to validate the feeling.

For example, if your friend says, "My boss totally hung me out to dry in our meeting today - he blamed me for something he forgot to do. What a jerk," And you reply, "But at least you have a job and a boss!" your coworker would probably punch you. Just because you're on a quest to be less negative doesn't mean empathy goes out the window.

First, you need to validate that person's experience - "Yes, that stinks. Your boss shouldn't have done that. That must have been really frustrating."

Once you've validated the experience, you can move to helping the person reframe it. "But eventually the truth will come out," or "But you're still the top employee in the department."

Better yet, empower the person complaining to find their own "buts" so you don't come off as condescending…

And when you're making your own complaints, you can look for that "but" yourself. Give yourself time to feel your emotions… and then think of what positive "but" you can add to the experience to reframe it and keep things in perspective. You'll almost always find a silver lining if you're willing to look for one.


Good luck and let us know if there are complaining tips and tricks we missed!

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