Counseling and Neurofeedback
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Board-Certifed in Neurofeedback

Why Complaints Drive You Nuts (& how to handle them)

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. – Proverb

Where complaints come from

Let’s start by defining complaints. If you tell your doctor about your headache, for example, that’s not a complaint. That’s because there’s a good chance your doctor can help. So here’s the definition: complaints are when you talk about something you don’t like to someone who can’t help.

Complaints are often well-intended. Some of the reasons people complain are:

  • To connect. It’s a way of showing that we’re all in the same boat, so to speak. Shared suffering creates feelings of solidarity. The intent is to offer emotional support. “Yeah, my drive was awful too.”
  • To avoid feeling like you messed up. “I tried to get there early, but the traffic was terrible.” “No wonder I can’t get my business off the ground. The economy is terrible.” Unless you’re complaining to the city planning committee or the Chair of the Federal Reserve, these count as complaints.
  • It feels easier. Announcing you’re hungry is much less effort than making dinner. Complaining about too much paperwork is easier than documenting the problem and coming up with some specific suggestions for managing it.
  • It feels good to let off steam.

A complaint about complaints…

However well-intended, complaints also have some downsides.

  1. They’re hard to listen to.
  2. They don’t work. Let me explain…

For one thing, even when venting feels good, studies show that you end up more worried or frustrated than before you started.

For another, complaints subtly encourage you to put up with something instead of taking action. If the problem is “traffic” or “the economy”, after all, why fight the inevitable?

But complaining is not only bad for morale – it’s bad for your brain.

The trouble with cursing the darkness

Imagine a trickle of water slowly but steadily wearing a path through rock. That’s something like what complaints do to your cortex.

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, found that listening to complaints increases cortisol, which in turn interferes with neural connections in the hippocampus. That’s the part of your brain that has a lot to do with memory, concentration, and problem solving. When you listen to complaints, that doesn’t function as well.

Research dating back to the 1950s shows that complaints…

It’s no surprise that one of the most common questions I hear in my “Mindful Leadership in the Workplace” class is, “How can I get my staff to stop complaining and do something?”

So let’s look at a strategy to re-direct complaints.

Ask the right question

When you run into an obstacle, there’s usually a solution. Human ingenuity is powerful, once we’re in problem-solving mode. So the goal in a complaint-free office is to move someone from venting to problem-solving mode. A powerful question can do this.

A good question shakes up your view of things and helps you consider other perspectives. It’s like lighting the proverbial candle. And best of all, it’s an intervention that is short and sweet.

Here are a few questions that can help short-circuit complaints in your workplace (or at home), and at the same time encourage creative thinking:

  • That sounds difficult! How did you handle it?
  • So what did you learn from that?
  • Given that, how would you like to approach the problem?
  • How can I help?

Questions like these help keep you calm, get buy-in, and develop your capacity as a leader.
If you want to shake things up even more, you can try the strategy used by one of my mentors, the Executive Director of a community-based counseling agency. She changed the tone of a meeting, and every meeting after that, with one simple sentence: “Anyone can make a list of problems,” she told us, looking every single person in the eye. “But from the leaders of this organization, I want to hear solutions.”

She did make it clear to us that we were welcome to come to her if we were really stuck. But I don’t recall ever hearing another complaint in her presence.

Make an offer

Think of a someone who you’d like to direct. It shouldn’t be hard – most of us complain a lot more than we imagine. It could be a colleague, someone you supervise, or your 7 year old.
When you hear the complaint, interrupt with a question that fits the situation:

  • How are you thinking about handling that?
  • Is there something you’d like me to do?

The world is full of things that can’t be done, but venting about them generally makes them feel all the more impossible. As a leader, you want to help people move forward, and you can do this is with a simple question.

Like my mentor did, you can use powerful questions to create a complaint-free workplace.