CREATIVE COMPLAINING: GRIPING WITH FINESSE

                                                            CREATIVE COMPLAINING: GRIPING WITH FINESSE
                                                                                 Randy W. Green, Ph.D.
 
 Complaining, believe it or not, is an art. It requires skill, patience and practice to master it. A complaint from an accomplished mouth can stop an argument or misunderstanding, save a friendship-- even a marriage!  In contrast, an inept complaint may destroy relationships and earn the culprit a reputation as a "whiner."

At times, we all feel abused or irritated by someone; a friend, spouse, parent, co-worker or public servant. Life has its little annoyances: The milk was delivered sour; one of the kids left the shoe polish uncovered again and the dog licked it; the after cleaning house, shopping and taking care of the children, your husband came home yelling that dinner wasn't ready; you returned to a garage, four hours after leaving your car to find the repairs not made; mother is coming tomorrow and will likely lecture you again on child-rearing; your wife complains that you are "inconsiderate"; your husband complains that you don't have time for him; your boss feels you can "produce more"...

When people seem to get under your skin, it is certainly better to complain than to "sit on it." The latter may lead to temporary peace. However, keeping feelings inside causes them to be replayed over and over, causing pain. Sooner or later, they may be externalized in a manner that could damage relationships, such as by saying things you don't mean; or they may lead to your withdrawal from the person to protect yourself. Thus, it becomes crucial for us to learn to share our feelings with someone who has--intentionally or otherwise-- hurt them.

Doing this without hurting in return is not easy. The most important rule of thumb is: Report, don't attack! "You never care how I feel." "You're always late! Remember ten years ago when you were late for our wedding?" Words like these, called "Universal Quantifiers", signal attack. Always and never bring the past into play and accuse for the future as well. They imply the lack of even one instance where they are not true, thereby overlooking any contributions of the "accused."  Moreover, telling a person how he or she feels is presumptuous. The fact is you do not know exactly how the other person feels. You only know what you observe happening and how that makes you feel. Additionally, undercutting each other by referring to past mistakes doesn't solve anything. As each person's interpretation of the past is different, this kind of complaining will likely offend the other person, leading to a defensive argument.  Simple "reporting" can side-step all this. Don't generalize to "always" and "never." Don't presume. Rather, tell your spouse, friend, gardener, mother-in-law, how you experience what he or she does; and what behavior you are requesting instead!

"When you yell at me for not having dinner ready, I feel 'abused'. I tell myself that you don't seem to want to understand why. I would rather you let me explain."

"I feel embarrassed when we are late. I would like to leave fifteen minutes earlier tonight."

"Please don't correct my children. It irritates me. I would prefer to discipline them myself."

There is no past or future accusations in these statements; and no presumptions. You are reporting your own experience rather than questioning the other person's motives. Therefore, the complaint doesn't necessarily lead to a tooth-and nail defense. This sets the stage for a rational, friendly exchange rather than a devastating, "no-win" argument. Whether the other person reacts with protest or apology, your skillful complaint will help you come to an understanding. You may save yourself from frustration, someone else from anger; and make the relationship a little stronger in the bargain. Not bad from a little creative complaining!