• Kayte Thomas

Complaint – or opportunity for connection?

Think about the last time you heard – or said - “just stop complaining”. What was going on? How did it make you feel? If you were the person speaking, you probably felt annoyed. And if you were the person being spoken to, you probably felt frustrated. Either way, the issue at hand probably did not get resolved and instead just got shut down. What if I told you that there is a way to shift the paradigm in these situations without anyone feeling misunderstood? Let’s talk a little bit today about communication and connection – and why it’s not important to focus on complaining.

When someone says “stop complaining”, this is a pretty good indicator that the person just doesn’t want to hear what is being said, or may be uncomfortable with the way something is being communicated. They could feel powerless to offer assistance, irritated by the perceived negativity, or simply disagree with what is being said. Regardless, telling someone to “stop complaining” is a quick method of regaining control in a conversation and shutting down further discussion. Sometimes it’s effective at silencing the other person, but at what cost? Often, the cost of abruptly ending a conversation is lost connection. Connection and communication are cornerstones of healthy interactions, so that is definitely not something to lose!

Complaining is a pretty general term applied to the act of expressing dissatisfaction. It tends to hold a negative connotation, but that’s not always justified. There are plenty of instances where expressing dissatisfaction is not only expected, but necessary – and trying to make the other person be quiet is anything but helpful. People who are in physical or emotional pain, for example, can justifiably express this without being told to be quiet. People who are confused or stressed or otherwise overwhelmed can do so as well. So why are we so quick to label expressions of dissatisfaction “complaining” while trying to end communication? Hint: it probably goes back to that talk we had about toxic positivity. Our culture really struggles with being comfortable with conversations that require empathy or difficulty discussions. It’s so much easier to say “stop talking” than it is to have a potentially uncomfortable but productive conversation, which is really unfortunate because so there is so much potential for growth and connection within those instances.

It’s important to remember is that all behaviour is communication, so if someone is “complaining”, that is an indicator that there is a need that is not being met. Now, sometimes this need is not going to be met immediately, such as when a toddler wants a cookie just before dinnertime and feels it’s unfair to wait. But this doesn’t mean that you still can’t acknowledge that the toddler wants something and is feeling upset because it isn’t available at the moment. Remember that people’s feelings are valid, even if their perception or expectation is not. Responding in a way that recognizes the underlying need and provides empathy will always have better outcomes for everyone involved. "Stop complaining" interjects shame into the conversations, whereas hearing the need provides the tools to begin problem solving together.

Here are a few tips to focus on connection when faced with a situation that feels like complaining:

  1. Listen for the underlying need

  2. Use open communication to reflect back your understanding

  3. Consider if it is necessary to reframe the situation

  4. Acknowledge the difficulty the person is experiencing

  5. Ask the person what would make things better

  6. Offer support

  7. Set boundaries

Let’s take a moment to put that into practice. Since it is Back to School time around the nation, and this year everything looks very different with the pandemic, we can reasonably predict that there will be a lot of frustration, confusion, and unmet needs as people adjust. And with that comes some chance of complaining. However, if we seek to understand the need and create connection, the communication doesn’t have to be frustrating or difficult.

Suzie Student is participating in her virtual classroom lesson when she suddenly comes out of her room crying and saying that she just can’t do this. “Nobody is giving me a chance to talk!” she wails. Determined not to go back to her class, she crosses her arms and says she doesn’t like school this year because the teacher doesn’t like her. What are the options to respond here? Her parent could say “go back to class and stop complaining, everyone is dealing with the same thing!” – but this is likely to result either in meltdown, or shutdown…and won’t resolve the underlying issue. Suzie is upset because she does not feel that she has a chance to participate in the discussion since the teacher isn’t calling on her for answers. She is interpreting this to mean that the teacher doesn’t like her as well, which is adding to the intensity of her response.

This is how the conversation could go using reflection and empathy:

Parent: (reflects and hears the underlying need for connection and acknowledges desire to be heard) “It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated because the teacher is calling on other students and you want a chance to speak too. Are you sure she knew that you had your hand raised, or maybe she was giving someone else a chance to respond?”

Suzie: “I don’t know, I said I knew the answer and I had my hand raised but she didn’t even look at me.”

Parent: “Hmmm. Sometimes things work different on Zoom than in a regular classroom. It can feel frustrating with so many changes right now. Would it be ok if I helped you take a look real quick?”

Suzie: “yeah ok I guess so.”

Parent: (helps Suzie locate the “raise hand” button on Zoom and explains that the teacher is also learning how to interact with the students in this new setting too). “Try using this button to let the teacher know when you want to talk. Remember that she can’t let everyone answer at once, and just because she doesn’t call on you doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you. Please finish your lesson and then we can talk a little more afterwards.”

This might seem like a simple conversation, but a lot of connection happened here. Instead of being shut down and told not to complain, Suzie received a beneficial response. Her parent recognized the underlying need, helped to problem solve a solution, and set a boundary as to when she could expect to talk about the situation again. Instead of using shame to end the interaction, Suzie’s parent took a moment to connect and diffuse the situation while providing appropriate support. Suzie found a potential solution and gained a different perspective of the situation, but most importantly knows that she can go to her parent for help in the future. Be mindful that using “stop complaining” not only shuts down the conversation, but the connection that invites future discussion as well. So by not hearing that, Suzie feels respected and valued instead of dismissed – and likely less frustrated because she learned a classroom tool to indicate to the teacher that she would like to be called upon.

Another aspect to consider when responding to “complaining” is your ability to handle uncertainty or discomfort. Listening to someone talk about a situation they are unhappy with or something that is upsetting them can make the listener feel as if they have to fix the problem. Sometimes not knowing how to correct an issue or not being able to do can be upsetting in itself, but remember that there is so much value in simply being heard and having a need recognized. Sometimes just hearing “I hear you’re really upset by this” is enough to foster connection. Sometimes, the person just needs to feel validated instead of being given a solution – and anyone can provide that. You have to be able to connect with something inside yourself though that says “hey, I recognize the way this person is feeling, and I understand it’s unpleasant.” Empathy is really the key to connection. And more often than not, it stops the “complaining” as well.

One final note to be aware of though – if a person frequently uses “stop complaining” when a valid concern is being raised, this can at times be an indication of a lack of emotional recognition skills, imbalanced power dynamics in a relationship, in some cases emotional abuse. Be mindful to assess interactions and consider if “stop complaining” is used as a means to ignore injustice. This can occur in a variety of settings and interpersonal relationships, and is basically gaslighting someone into submission – which is a form of emotional abuse. This indicates a more serious issue and unhealthy dynamics which may require appropriate counseling or additional support beyond basic reframing and connection exercises. If you recognize this, please consider seeking more information about emotional abuse or reaching out for professional support.

Oftentimes, when we respond to a complaint with empathy and connection, we foster strong connections and mutual understanding. The feeling of being validated can reduce complaining by itself, so it really is a win for all involved. Training yourself to hear the need and focus on connection instead of shutting down conversations can provide lasting benefits at home, school, work, and beyond. Try utilizing the 7 steps provided above the next time you hear a complaint and see if the results are better in the future!

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