The Tip of the Iceberg: Putting an End to Complaints

Often I am asked whether there is any value to complaining and listening to complaints. After all, complaints allow us to be aware of what is on someone’s mind and the act of complaining gives the complainer the opportunity to get things off their chest. The answer is yes, of course. Complaining has its place, and venting can be useful to clear one’s mind. The trouble comes when complaining is recurring, because that’s a signal nothing is getting resolved.

If someone is continually complaining about their boss or their co-worker or, on the personal side, their spouse, problems are just not getting solved. Complaining gives the person the chance to blow off steam, which can actually reduce the pressure needed to take action. If left alone, this complaining can infect others, which leads to bigger problems. I have been brought into many situations where complaining and negativity polluted the entire culture of an organization, impacting morale, productivity, and even growth.

To eliminate and resolve complaining, you have to understand what drives complaints. The number-one reason why people are not able to stop complaining is because they are not dealing with the real underlying issue.

Think of complaints like an iceberg. The words people say are the part you can see—the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The largest part of an iceberg is what you can’t see—everything that lurks below the waterline. With complaints there are two things lurking below:

  1. Unexpressed or hidden wants
  2. Pent-up emotions

Let me give you an example. At a seminar, a woman shared how she was upset and constantly complaining that her co-worker was not pulling his share of the workload. After a bit of questioning it became clear the issue was that this woman had to stay at work longer to make up for her co-worker’s lack of performance. Therefore, she was concerned she was neglecting her family, her kids in particular. On the surface her complaint was about her co-worker; below the surface she wanted her boss to resolve the situation because on the emotional front she was concerned she was not being a good mother. After our discussion, this woman realized she needed to stop complaining and instead have a conversation with her boss to gain clarity around her job expectations and responsibilities. This way she could leave work without feeling guilty about not being a team player and get home to her family.

So how do you use this iceberg complaint principle and eliminate complaining? Just go to the true source of wants and emotions to look below the waterline of words by using the following two-step complaint-ending methodology:

  1. Acknowledge the complainer’s emotions. When you account for the complainer’s state of mind and appropriately acknowledge and reflect back their emotions by saying things like, “I can understand how frustrating this must be. I get how upset you are,” the complainer will feel connected to you and chances are their emotional level will come down. This is critical because when someone is highly emotional, they have a hard time listening, which makes it difficult to resolve the situation. This may sound obvious, but people often do just the opposite and instead invalidate another person’s emotions, which always leads to bad results.
  2. Facilitate a workable solution. You can do this by asking these questions: “What would you suggest?” “How would you like to resolve this?” “What would you like done?” You might even ask, “How can I help you?” By asking the complainer these types of solution-oriented questions, you are helping the complainer move from the complaint stage to the resolution stage. The complainer is now encouraged to start thinking of their true wants.

Let me show you how easy this is. If someone complains, “My boss is really hard to deal with,” then you could say, “I get how frustrated you are. What would you suggest?” The complainer may say, “Well, I want your help to address this issue,” to which you could respond, “Okay, I feel the same way. Let’s figure out what makes sense.” Or you might say, “I actually don’t have time to address this, but what if I helped you figure out a couple quick solutions that might help you?” Or you might actually have to say, “I’m not sure. Let me give it some thought and get back to you by the end of the day tomorrow.”

You may be wondering whether it is appropriate to give advice or if it’s better to facilitate the complainer to come up with the solution. Don’t worry. This two-step methodology will uncover the answer. For example, when you say, “What would you suggest?” if the person wants your suggestions or advice, they will most likely say, “Well do you have any ideas?” Then you can provide your ideas.

One cautionary note: If the complainer says, “No, I actually just want you to listen,” you will have to make a decision. Just listening may be appropriate, but if this is a recurring complaint, it might be time to challenge the person. For example, you could say, “I know you want me to listen, but I think I’m doing you a disservice because you seem to be constantly upset by this and nothing is getting resolved. So let’s try to figure out what can be done about it.”

When you hear complaints, remember to consider there is a lot more to it than the eye can see or the ear can hear. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Then implement the two-step complaint-ending methodology. Not only will you be helping the complainer, but you will be helping yourself—and all those impacted by the complaining will probably say thank you for resolving the real issue.

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