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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

Help Your Colleagues Complain Better

One of the biggest problems I see newer managers have is how to deal with employee complaints. There is a body of research especially from Robin Kowalski of Clemson, who has shown that there are two different types of complaints, as well as a root cause for complaining. I want to talk to you about how to navigate this because when you know more about this, it's a little bit easier to move forward to the good type of complaining. There is actually a good type of complaining-- I'll just give away the punchline! It's called action-oriented complaining, and you can help a person get there. When a person comes to you to complain-- this person could be a friend or anyone, and for this example let’s use the workplace-- they're really a little bit lost in their thoughts or their emotions, and they go to someone else to connect with that person and feel a connection.

A lot of people think that to make someone feel heard, they must agree with them, or assure the complainer their feelings are valid. However, they shouldn’t do that! If you do that for a friend, or a loved one, or a colleague, and say, “Oh, I can't believe they did that, that person is so bad and so wrong,” you're creating a much worse situation for the person who's complaining to you. This is because they're about to head down a negative path. According to research, this will cause the complainer to see the person they're complaining about more negatively than they did before the conversation with you. They will think of whatever that person says in the most negative light, and they will see slights that were never there.

When you like someone, they can do something untoward, and you're like, “oh, whatever.” They get a pass. But when you don't like someone, you're ready to take aim at their behavior. You can start to imagine that coming down the pike at your company.

If you have an employee who's upset with someone else, having them continue down that negative pathway of interpretation where they think that everything the other person says is bad, condescending, disrespectful, whatever it might be-- you have created a worse situation for your department, or your company, and for that person. People don't like to stay in jobs where they have outright animosity with another person. What’s suggested to get people to action is to not move to action too quickly- but do move there. For example, you come to me with a complaint, and I say, “oh, I could see why that would be hard on you, huh? Let's think about that.” Just hearing that I hear you, can make the person sit for a minute and calm down emotionally. It puts their brain at ease. It's a feeling of safety, and survival for them, and realizing this is a safe place. They think, “my employer did not get mad at me just now, they listened to me and calmed me down a little bit.” And now you're able to help them get to the next place.

What I recommend is called cognitive reframing, where I want them to think about the story they're telling themselves to see if it could be interpreted differently. A common one I get is "this person said (fill in the blank) in a meeting and embarrassed me in front of all my colleagues.” I'll respond by asking them to tell me about it and what was embarrassing about it. When they tell me, I'll really think about how that would make me feel, personally. And I’ll say, “You know what? If someone said those words to me, I don't think I would feel bad. I mean, it is a fact that (blank) happened, and I don’t think that was intended to make you feel bad. Or maybe, they meant it in a different way or maybe you interpreted their tone as being more negative than it really was.” The first action there is that the person now is going to sit with your feedback and think about the story. One of the things therapists use is asking their patients to tell themselves this statement: “The story I'm telling myself is (blank).” So, what's a different story they can tell themselves?

The next action they could take is to discuss it directly with the person, or to have a conversation the next time something like that comes up. Maybe they go talk to that person and say, “You know, when you said that in the meeting, I felt kind of like you were attacking me, and I was wondering if you could explain that to me.” Use an open-ended question by not accusing them, rather saying, “I felt this, but I don't really know what you meant.” Give them that opportunity. Or, if they’re in a meeting next time and the same person speaks up, they'd could say, “I'm not sure why you're saying that. I do understand there was a problem, but I didn't see it this way, although I do recognize I need to do (blank) differently next time, (whatever it is).”

That's what Kowalski’s research has found—you can take a person out of saying negative things, and stop them from wallowing in the negative, and move them to some sort of action that is positive complaining. Because now you know how negativity leads to change. The status quo never leads to change. You can develop a better working relationship with someone when you confront them. You can safeguard your authority too, as a supervisor or manager. No one respects a manager who just agrees with someone complaining to them. Everyone has a story, and you don’t want to validate feelings based on only that story. Think about the situation as a whole and come up with a different story. Let's come up with a tactic to turn a negative into a neutral or a positive.

I hope this helps you. Being a new manager was super hard for me. It's never easy when you have different interpersonal aspects to handle, but complaints are a big one. And I see it in my personal life too. When people want to complain to me, I don't think they like me when I tell them they should think about their complaint differently. However, I do feel that they will be better for it. And that's what I would like my friends to be-- the best version of themselves, and I hope they make me the best version of myself.

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