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The Fine Art of Complaining

I think complaining is an art form.  There should be scores of admirers and Oscars awarded to honor those who are truly gifted complainers.  Being an executive for so many years, I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving end of a great deal of complaining over the years, so I consider myself something of a connoisseur on the subject;  I also have tremendous respect for the folks who get it right.

First off, you need to separate complaining when your rights or company policy are violated versus everything else.  If you have a rights issue like harassment, then your path should be to keep the description of the situation simple, keep it objective, keep the documentation of the incident(s) organized and escalate it through the right channel (HR, your boss, the police, etc).  I don’t consider this type of thing ‘complaining’ – it’s more like ‘reporting’.  In fact, when dealing with this area, ambiguity clouds the issues, so you want to make sure the report of the incident(s) is as concise as possible, so people don’t get sidetracked with distracting and possibly irrelevant information.  This situation sucks, but sometimes has to happen.

It’s complaining about everything else that lends itself to artistic expression.  The absolute masters of complaint don’t really come across as complaining.  These folks are generally very positive in outlook and frame up the issues in a way that aligns what they’re trying to achieve, clearly, with what is in the best interests of the company.  It makes the issues very easy to understand.  What makes it even easier to bridge the gap between simply understanding and being motivated to take action, is when it’s clear that a positive outcome will be achieved by making change.  I love these folks as employees, customers and suppliers because dealing with one of their complaints gets the company to a positive outcome.

I even enjoy the folks who really try to frame up situations in positive and constructive terms that are kind of goofy.  “Upgrade the laptop because we want customers to see that we’re a really successful company.”  No, but I’ll give you points for pitching me the idea this way.  Some of these are hilarious – you probably have one or two stories.  Once in a while, I’ll even buy into the argument.  I’ll even give a lot of latitude to folks that seem to totally lack a sense for setting context – you know the type… it’s like they’ve been arguing with themselves for an hour, then only tune you into the last 30 seconds.

The folks who are depressing to deal with, are the ones with a negative outlook.  Frankly, with these folks it’s tougher to separate the issues from the desired outcome, from the negativity, on real concerns.  It’s all muddled together.  I might even have a candid desire to help, but sometimes the negativity taints my perception of their personal agenda and makes me more circumspect in action.

I think we need a set of golden rules for complaining. Help me educate folks on your best techniques.  Here are five of mine:

  • Be objective and de-personalize. Personalizing something will immediately set off an executive’s listening skills and start them down the path of explaining why you need to work better with your colleagues (pretty much the opposite of the outcome intended from the complainer’s perspective).
  • Make your personal agenda clear. This is your context. If the context is fuzzy, then people are left guessing.
  • Sometimes there is just no answer to ‘so what do you want me to do about it?’ in all the words streaming in your direction, which, in my opinion tends to comes across as lazy on the part of the complainer, especially if it’s any part of their job to come up with solutions.
  • Be clear on what you can accomplish in under eight minutes. The average executive deals with an issue in eight minutes or less. The onus is on you to package up the issue to either deal with it in under eight minutes… or plant some seeds so you get a more efficient conversation some other time. Pick one…
  • Be positive and frame up the issue as an opportunity to improve terms – even if doing this grates on you the wrong way.

Hey, sometimes I’m cranky and need somewhere to vent for the sake of downloading.  But remember, if change is really the goal – and the goal is not to complain for the sake of complaining – then focus on how to position your words to best achieve that goal.

Suggest your own golden rules. Or suggest some situations and let’s talk about how to frame things positively to get change.

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