Want a stellar relationship? Better learn how to take a complaint.

boss communication healthywork leadership managethis resilience saywhatyouvegottosay self-awareness toxicworkplace Mar 02, 2013
Two white women engaged face to face over a table, seriously discussing

by Anne O'Connor

It takes two weeks, but Marcy finds the courage to say what she needs to say.

"I didn't like you talking about me with my coworker instead of coming to me with the problem," she says to her boss. 

This is a big deal for Marcy because her boss—call her Denise—doesn’t always respond well to an employee pointing out something that isn’t working.

Sadly, all the rumors that Marcy heard about Denise's reaction come true. Instead of listening, Denise interrupts. She’s defensive and wants to tell her side of the story; she wants to explain why she did what she did. Marcy stays steady, keeps her complaint clear, and persists. But this agitates Denise and she yells at Marcy. Finally, as the conversation comes to a close, Denise gets weepy in her defensiveness. For days afterward, Denise avoids Marcy and is curt and cold. 

Denise is making one of the biggest mistakes we make as humans: she's not listening and she's making a hard situation worse. 

Marcy's complaint has bloomed into a minor catastrophe and she's looking for a new job. 

Leaders can't afford to ignore good information from their team--we work for relationships.

If Denise wants to have functional relationships--not to mention loving and rich and full relationships--she would be wise to learn how to stop thinking about herself and to accept other people's complaints. Her current reaction is doing damaging her relationships and dampening her ability to motivate her team.

If you want to have high-quality relationships wherever you are, you need a functioning complaint department. In business or in love or with your neighbor across the fence, you’ve got to be able to listen to people say things that they don’t like. About you. If you’re committed to building good relationships, you’ve got to take that complaint and put it through a process of examination so that you can either eliminate it or work on it.

That’s not easy. But getting good at taking complaints will change every relationship in your life. Complaints aren’t going away. You have complaints about people and they have complaints about you. How you take those complaints and what you do with them can deepen your relationships…or blow them up.

A company without a good way to handle complaints will become known for poor customer service and won’t do as well as it could, if it survives at all. A personal relationship without a good complaint process is equally doomed.

On the other hand, you can learn to use a complaint as an opportunity to make or deepen a connection. And connection is what we all want. People don’t complain because they want to hurt you, they complain because they have some need that isn’t getting met. Often, people complain because they care enough about the relationship to want to make it better. This is especially true when someone complains to a higher-ranking person: that take guts. 

That doesn’t mean people are good at complaining--mostly people gripe or fumble around and aren't clear. That’s another blog entry for another day. But however people complain, you can get good at using the complaint for your own growth. 

A complaint is a chance to see yourself as others do. Or, at least as one other does. It doesn’t make the complaint right or wrong; it’s just information about how you appear to this person in this moment. The complaint could be helpful information. It could be trash. But you won't know unless you give it your attention.

Here's how to turn a painful complaint into a productive masterclass

  • Get curious. Nobody is going to tell you the real deal about anything if you won’t take their perspective seriously. Or worse, like Denise above, if you seem fragile or hostile. So get a hold of your tears, your eye-rolling,  your defensiveness and anything else that doesn’t open the door for someone to say what they want to say. Pick up some key phrases such as, "Say more about that?" or "I wonder if you have an example you could share?" Take a deep breath and see what you can learn.
  • Don’t take it personally. This is can be a difficult idea to grasp. How can I not take a complaint about me personally? Challenging, right? Just lighten it up a bit if you can. Even if it's completely true, the complaint is not a crucifixion. It’s not an indictment of your entire existence. Don’t make it so. You are still a human being on the planet, worthy of love and respect and care. Yes, you make mistakes and probably aren’t perfect. So what? You’ve got something you could do better? Welcome to the human race, my friend. The sooner you accept this fact, the easier life gets. Sometimes it helps to come to your habits with the eyes of an anthropologist looking for clues. 
  • Practice empathy. Consider with the person lodging the complaint. How hard is it for them to say this to you? How important must this be to bring it to you? Are they nervous? Are they telling you this because they want your relationship to be better? Because work has become untenable? 
  • Focus. Resist the urge to use the moment to lodge your own complaint. Be wary of any sentence that has this kind of construction:  “Well, I do that because you do this.” First, work to simply listen and acknowledge the complaint without explaining why you do something.
  • Reflect back what you hear. Try to acknowledge the complaint in your own words. Denise might say something like, “You’re upset that I talked to Bob about you without coming to you first. I get that. I wouldn't like that either.”
  • Be grateful. Thank the complainer for bringing you this complaint. This might be hard. But you’re looking at a complaint as a way to help you see your full self, right?  You want people to tell you stuff you can't see yourself. This is especially true if you're in a position of power. If you can genuinely say that you’re glad she told you what was bugging her, do it.
  • Respond. Sometimes, it’s enough to say you hear in the moment and be done. If you can offer a true apology, a commitment to do something differently, great. But sometimes, complaints require more of a response. Time is your friend when it comes to responding well. Let the person know you’ll get back to them within a time frame. And then do it.
  • Evaluate the complaint. After you’re done with the conversation, consider the validity of the complaint. What is required for you to manage this information? Can you see the behavior in yourself? Review your behavior honestly, looking for clues. If you’re feeling ready to hear more, ask someone you trust if this complaint rings true about you.
  • Scan for familiarity.  Have you heard this complaint before? If you are hearing the same complaint from various sources, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to make a change in your life to address this thing that is tripping up your relationships.
  • Dig deep. If your self-evaluations consistently find that the problem lies in the other person, dig deeper. Work to get out of your own head and see other people's perspectives. You may want to consider that you are denying some information that could help you create closer relationships. 
  • Take responsibility. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, if you know that you’ve got a habit that isn’t working in your life, commit to working on it. Don’t blow it off--face the issue. Resist the urge to forget about it until the next time the same situation comes up. Because by then, look: you’ve done it again. To yourself and to everyone around you. This is the path to resentment in relationships. I’m not saying beat yourself up. I’m saying just the opposite: lift yourself up. When we work to get something right and lift ourselves up, we lift up every relationship around us. That is the true power of a complaint, received well.