Complaining happens every day. Customers complain about your product or service; colleagues complain about their work, and you complain how tired you are of complaints. From customer complaints to coworker complaints to your own complaints, we're literally surrounded by dissatisfaction.

While customer complaints (or "learning opportunities") will always be a part of any business, there is something we can do to stop complaining colleagues and our own complaints. While not all complaints are without warrant, if you want to change something for the better, make sure you complain directly, not indirectly.

There are two types of complaints: direct and indirect. Direct complaints are considered "face-threatening" situations and are addressed to people you think caused the issue.

  1. Direct complaints -- They're used to remedy an issue. The most common form of direct complaint is the average customer service call where a client expresses dissatisfaction with your widgets, or when your spouse says you snore too loud.
  2. Indirect complaints -- Unlike direct complaints, gripes are not addressed to the alleged source of the problem. Instead, gripes can be self-focused ("I look fat"), other focused ("Bob is such a brown noser"), or an impersonal situational ("It's really hot today").

Effects of Complaining

Negative interactions can affect our mood. In Robert Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule, Sutton points out that while we tend to have more positive interactions than negative at work, our negative interactions have a five times more powerful effect on our mood. While good things make us a little happier, bad things make us drastically more unhappy.

On the other hand, complaining can be positive. In Diana Boxer article "How to Gripe and Establish Rapport," she found that about half the responses to gripes tend to build rapport through someone agreeing or commiserating with us.

However, if you are unhappy with a person or a problem, the situation won't change by building rapport. This is why you should promote your gripes to direct complaints.

Promoting Gripes to Direct Complaints

In the film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks is the captain of an eight-man platoon that is sent to save one soldier (Matt Damon). The soldiers are not happy to be risking their lives to save one guy they don't know. First, the soldiers gripe to each other, complaining indirectly about the situation; finally they decide to ask what Hanks thinks. Hanks explains the soldiers shouldn't have been griping to each other, but instead should have been griping up (to someone who can do something about the problem).

So, if you want something to change in your organization or with colleagues, don't complain indirectly to your office mates. While this may build solidarity, it won't change the situation. Instead, promote your gripe to a direct complaint. And make sure to provide a solution.

Changing Direct Complaints to Solutions

We all hate whiners. Whiners complain all the time, but never do anything about the situation. So before you complain that the air conditioner in the office doesn't work or that you get information late all the time for your reports, think of possible solutions.

Providing solutions re-frames the situation from a negative to a positive one. Remember how negative situations have five times the effect on our mood? And no one likes whiners either. Furthermore, you're more likely to change a situation when you provide a solution than when you just complain.

So next time you find yourself griping around the water cooler, eschew the solidarity it provides and promote your gripe to a direct complaint and provide a solution. You may find solving an office problem makes you more friends than whining.

Published on: Jul 12, 2018