Marcy gets up enough courage to go to her boss and tell her that she didn’t appreciate her talking to another employee about Marcy’s problem without coming to Marcy first.
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.
Instead of listening, Denise interrupts. She’s defensive and wants to tell her side of the story; she wants to explain the complaint away. Sometimes, Denise yells at people who complain about what she does. Other times, she starts crying and is moody for days afterwards. Denise just wants to be appreciated. She wants Marcy to see that she really is a great human being.
Denise may be a great human being, but she’s strangling the life right out of her relationships by not knowing how to take a complaint.
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 your life and every relationship in it. Complaints aren’t going away. We have complaints about people and they have complaints about us. How we take those complaints and what we do with them can deepen our 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.
But what if we used a complaint to learn more about ourselves, about the other person, and about how to do something differently? If we knew how to do that, we could 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 us, 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.
That doesn’t mean people are good at complaining. That’s another blog entry for another day. But however people complain, we can get good at taking it in.
A complaint is a chance to see ourselves 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 we appear. It can be incredibly helpful information, if we look at the information as a practical way to improve.
How do we take a complaint and turn it into gold?
- We have to get curious. Nobody is going to tell us the real deal if we won’t take it in or don’t seem to care or worse, we seem hostile. So skip the eye-rolling, the attitude of “here we go again” or anything else that doesn’t open the door for someone to say what they want to say.
- We don’t take it personally. This is can be a difficult idea to grasp. How can I not take a complaint about me personally? Right. Basically, you have to trust that whatever the complaint is and even if it is dead on, that this information is useful in figuring out some aspect of your life. It’s 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? So 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. Just don’t swing the other way and use being human as an excuse for not making changes that you know you need to make. You do have the power to make changes.
- Empathize 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?
- Resist the urge to use the moment to lodge your own complaint. You know the old, “Well, I do that because you do this.” First, try to just hear the complaint without explaining why you do something.
- Try to play back the complaint in your own words. Denise might say something like, “I hear that you’re upset that I talked to Bob about you without coming to you first. I get that.”
- 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? So you need to find a way to welcome people’s complaints. If you can genuinely say that you’re glad she told you what was bugging her, do it.
- Tell her you’ll get back to her. Sometimes, it’s enough to say you hear. If you can offer a true apology, a commitment to do something differently, and move on, great. But sometimes, complaints require more of a response. Time is our 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.
- Have a system for evaluating the complaint. After you’re done with the conversation, find a way to consider the validity of the complaint and what is required for you to manage this piece. If you’re feeling ready to hear more, ask someone you trust if this complaint rings true about you.
- Not all complaints are entirely about you. There can be all kinds of factors that bring a complaint to us, including the complainer’s inability to see her own faults. But at a minimum, the person who is complaining has an issue that is affecting your relationship. And sometimes, a brave person who complains to us represents many more people who don’t have the courage to tell us how it is. 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.
- If you are running through your evaluation of complaints and consistently finding that the problem is solely that of the person complaining, you may want to consider that you are denying some information that could help you create closer relationships. What I’m suggesting is that you dig deeper, because you’re probably fooling yourself.
- Lastly and perhaps most importantly, if you know that you’ve got something that isn’t working in your life, commit to doing something to help yourself. We’ve all got things that don’t work well. Don’t be that person that says, “Eh, that’s life.” Don’t set it down and forget about it until the next time the same situation comes up and look: you’ve done it again. To yourself and to everyone around you. 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. And that’s what really listening to a complaint can do for us. Who could complain about that?