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The Conversation for Complaint

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When something occurs in our life that we feel is unfair it’s natural to complain about it. Looking carefully at the nature of the complaint reveals at least two interesting things about human nature:

• We each have a desire to express to someone that we’re unhappy with what has happened to us and explain why we feel it was unjust. We want to be heard and have our feelings acknowledged. We want someone to affirm that we were mistreated or wronged in some way. Our sense of fairness cries out to be recognized and one of the best ways to do that is to find a sympathetic ear; the empathy of others makes us feel better.

• In addition to our desire to have our complaint heard, we want someone to do something about our situation. We want to have things rectified and get order restored so that we move past the problem and get on with our lives and our work. This requires more than just a sympathetic ear, we need someone with the power to put things right. That’s where knowing how to have an effective conversation for complaint proves to be an invaluable skill.

How we express our complaint, and to whom, determines whether or not our complaint gets resolved in a manner that allows us to move forward and let go of any anger, resentment, resignation or other difficult emotions that are associated with it. The way we complain can also play a critical role in changing the conditions that brought the complaint about in the first place. The conversation for complaint is a core competency for creating healthy boundaries and more harmonious relationships both at work and at home.

The conversation for complaint is a core competency for creating healthy boundaries and more harmonious relationships both at work and at home.

This post will focus on complaints in the workplace and will outline some helpful steps to resolve those complaints. It is written with the twin assumptions that you are able to go directly to the person who is the source of your complaint and that that person is reasonable and willing to work with you to iron things out. It does not directly cover what to do when you have a complaint about someone who is recalcitrant and refuses to work with you to put things right. In such cases you’ll most likely need to work through management or HR to resolve it. In either instance, the steps outlined below will be useful.

First, let’s look at to whom we need to address our complaint.

We need to identify who has the power to resolve our complaint. If we have a problem with a company policy or condition, complaining to our colleagues may make us feel good, but in most instances our colleagues do not have the organizational authority to change the condition or policy. That means complaining to that audience may garner us empathy, but it will likely contribute little to getting our complaint resolved.

Sometimes there are difficult emotions attached to a complaint and having a trusted colleague in whom you can confide and talk things through is an excellent first step. However, telling a lot of people and complaining repeatedly about an issue without bringing it to the attention of the person(s) who can act to resolve it is a harmful practice. It’s a form of gossiping that can be very toxic and corrosive to everyone – even those not directly involved.

Leadership that welcomes and resolves complaints creates an improved workplace for everyone.

It’s up to the leaders of an organization to create an atmosphere where people know they can hold a complaint conversation. Leadership that welcomes and resolves complaints creates an improved workplace for everyone. Leadership that fails to do this does no favors for anyone and sooner or later, it exacts a terrible price.

The next step is to frame the complaint in such a way that it stands a chance of getting resolved.

Here, we have to consider if our complaint is legitimate. For example, if you accept a job at a company that mandates random drug testing, complaining that drug testing is an invasion of your privacy is not a legitimate complaint because that condition would have been something you agreed to when you accepted the job.

If you have a complaint that you feel is legitimate – meaning you have good reasons to feel you were treated unjustly – then there are a few things to consider as you go about resolving it. Below a basic structure for having a powerful complaint conversation that will greatly increase the chances of getting your complaint resolved:

  • Identify the criteria – what makes this a legitimate complaint?

  • Start with appreciation – it may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s essential.

  • Process out any strong emotions associated with the complaint until you can speak about it in a calm manner - this may take time and practice!

  • State the complaint as objectively as possible – here’s what happened, here’s how it goes against policy, here’s why that policy is flawed, here’s how this is impacting me, here’s why your performance is not sufficient, etc.

  • Check for agreement – make sure the other party is tracking you and listen for disagreement and new information.

  • Decide what you need in order to resolve the complaint and make a request that can remedy the situation. Sometimes that’s an apology, sometimes that’s requesting some reparation work in order to restore trust, sometimes it’s a harder thing like putting someone on probation or even terminating them.

  • Declare the matter closed – all parties need to agree that the matter is settled, everyone needs to be forgiven and all need to agree that they will move on and not bring it up again or allow it to continue to color the relationship.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps:

Identify the criteria. Carefully examine the assumptions you are holding as you judge the injustice at the heart of your complaint. Is what happened something that:

  • Clearly violates company policies, standards, practices, or industry norms?

  • People in a similar situation to yours would agree is unjust?

  • Is the last straw in a line of minor or major annoyances that you have not spoken about sooner and now the dam is breaking?

  • Simply “feels” wrong?

If it just feels wrong, it may be tied to other times in your life when you’ve experienced unfair treatment. Make sure you are not dragging all of that into this conversation. And, should you realize that your complaint is the result of past experiences that you never talked about, own that. Acknowledge that you didn’t speak up sooner and think through what you need to work out in order to feel heard without slipping into the blame game. Be sure to consider the other person in this, if they weren’t aware of your unspoken history, unloading a litany of complaints all at once is likely going to be too much for them to take in and process. Be strategic. Pick a few examples that will support your case and lead with those.

This is a difficult step for most of us. Stick to the facts and state why/how they make the situation problematic. Acknowledge that difficult emotions may be present on all sides. Name them and make space for them but don’t let them derail you from getting to resolution.

Note: Conversations about social and racial justice are beyond the scope of what can effectively be addressed in this short primer on complaint conversations. However, legitimate complaints arising from the social and racial justice domains do often surface at work so it feels appropriate to say a few words here before returning to the main focus of this post.

Sometimes something might feel terribly wrong to one person while not registering as a problem to someone else. This is particularly true if the issue is one of unequal standing due to positional power, status, or caste, where the person who feels wronged is in a subordinate position and the person who sees nothing wrong holds the power in the situation. This is a delicate territory to navigate. The increased presence and pressure from social justice movements such as: BIPOC, BLM, and LBGTQ+, is waking up members of the dominant culture to the long history of the marginalization of members of those communities. Those who are ignorant of that history are suddenly finding themselves in uncharted waters where actions taken with good intent can be seen as unconscious aggression and it may leave them bewildered and defensive.

It can be extremely difficult for a member of a traditionally marginalized group, who regularly experiences both intentional and unconscious aggression, to articulate clearly and objectively to a member of the dominant caste why they feel wronged. There may be a whole constellation of historical elements at work – most of which go unquestioned and unnoticed by the dominant caste because they lie beneath the surface of our everyday interactions and they seem to be “totally innocent.” If a marginalized person does communicate why they feel an offense has been committed, it adds insult to injury if the person holding the power in the situation tells them that their complaint is no big deal and they are overreacting.

Likewise, it can be a huge shock for white people who believe their remarks or actions were innocent and well-intended to learn that the person of color with whom they are working doesn’t experience their good intentions but instead finds themselves being ignored, insulted, marginalized, or worse. The work of uncovering the hidden histories and connections behind our unconscious ignorance is challenging and demanding and it’s also highly rewarding and leads to better outcomes for all concerned.

It’s important to remember that virtually all of us have been wounded by experiences of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and other forms of dehumanization and discrimination that are part of the human condition in the 21st Century. Nearly everyone is coping with some level of trauma, most of it unacknowledged. Plato is often credited with saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” First and foremost, conversations about dignity, justice, and belonging need to be approached with care so when attempting reconcile (literally, to make friendly again) we don’t inadvertently rub salt in wounds we are unaware of. Practicing kindness and compassion is paramount.

Some people demand a “safe space” to talk about volatile issues, but this can backfire if, by safe, they mean that nothing can be expressed that’s going to make other participants in the conversation feel uncomfortable. What’s called for are “brave spaces” where we set some agreements around how to have conversations when the subject matter is painful. We need to accept that many and perhaps all participants may made uncomfortable by the topics of racism, sexism, homophobia or other modes of discrimination and dehumanization while rejecting discomfort as a reason to avoid addressing the problem. With courage, compassion and kindness, we can clear the air and make new agreements to get to a better place.

Here are some foundational elements for creating a brave space:

  • Assuming both good intentions and responsibility for our impacts

  • Recognizing that conflict is inevitable but combat is optional

  • Accepting that bias is a feature of our consciousness, not a bug

  • Listening deeply and respectfully to a complaint while placing ourselves in the other person’s shoes to understand why it’s an issue

  • Acknowledging that between our bias and our lack of skill, we all make mistakes

  • Legitimizing the experience and perspectives of others even if we don’t agree

  • Being willing to forgive each other when mistakes are made

  • Agreeing to be kind, to show empathy and compassion

  • Owning our contribution to the situation

  • Practicing non-defensiveness

The need to defend ourselves activates our fight, flight freeze response and shuts down our ability to learn. Create a space where everyone is physically safe and be willing to sit with emotional discomfort in the service of learning how to work together more effectively.

It’s my hope that the above suggestions will be useful to you when you find yourself grappling with issues of social and racial justice. Now, let’s switch back to workplace complaints.

Start with appreciation. Taking some time to reflect on what you love about your work and the things you appreciate about the people you work with can actually help you to articulate your complaint more effectively. If you start from a place of upset and resentment it can easily spiral down into outrage and ultimatums. Taking some time to breathe deeply and dwell in positive emotions can help you see the bigger picture and keep you centered and grounded as you work through the challenges and difficulties that have brought your complaint to the surface.

Process out difficult emotions.

“The body always wins. What that means is that a person can have multiple Ph.D.s, and be phenomenally smart. If they get triggered, and they begin to get reactive, their system will experience contractions (flexor muscles), and it will activate cortisol which will shut down the part of the brain that accesses big picture thinking, creativity, and risk taking.” ~Wendy Palmer 6th degree black belt Aikido master

Check in with your body and scan for the presence of emotions that narrow your focus to yourself and that can short-circuit your creativity and cut you off from needed inner resources. Work to clear those emotions and then try writing out what happened in the most objective terms possible. Clearly express the reasons for your complaint. Rework it a few times until it feels accurate, non-defensive, and non-blaming. Practice with a trusted friend or colleague until you’re able to hold the conversation with a relaxed body and calm deep breathing. Recognize your attachment to being right, remain open to new information and practice non-defensive ways of communicating, i.e., assuming good intent, not blaming or shaming, taking responsibility for your role and asking for accountability on the part of others.

The above step can be challenging if there are strong emotions associated with your complaint. It may take many attempts to get clear enough to remain calm and grounded when talking about the issue. However, skipping this step will make getting your complaint resolved much harder than if you can enter the conversation feeling calm, centered, and grounded.

Here's a simple practice for staying grounded:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart - or sit with your feet flat on the floor, knees over ankles, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders, lift from the crown or your head and tuck your chin slightly

  • Connect with your breath in your body and as you do, allow it to deepen

  • Breathe in and out through your nose

  • Inhale deeply and direct your energy down into the Earth by exhaling through your feet

  • Repeat this three times

  • Now repeat it three more times and when you exhale grip the floor with your toes

Complaints often have anger attached to them and anger is a hot emotion that tends to rise up in the body. The rising nature of anger can quickly pull us out of our center of gravity and draw us up into our heads where thoughts race and repeat in ever faster cycles. That cuts us off from the resources we need to stay present and engaged. Deep breaths in with exhales directed down to your feet while gripping your toes will bring you quickly back into your body and give you greater ease and a more grounded feeling as you talk over the issue.

Note: this grounding practice only works if you actually do it. All too often, when in the grips of powerful emotions we lose touch with our breathing. Practice this exercise a few times each day for several weeks to get it in your body and when powerful emotions arise it will be much easier to ride the waves without being thrown out of your center.

State your complaint in objective terms. A good question to ask yourself is “What are the merits of my complaint?” Would a disinterested party who was familiar with the company culture and/or standard industry practices agree that your grievance is legitimate? Would they clearly see that something is out of alignment and needs correcting?

Begin with a few inquiries to learn how much the other person is aware of and understands your situation. Then set the context for them to understand the nature and severity of your complaint. Use language that’s factual and non-blaming. Never assume bad intent. We rarely know why people do what they do. Even if you think that someone wants to cause harm, stating so is likely to inflame the situation. Since blaming creates defensiveness, try asking questions like these:

  • “What was in your mind when you did X?“

  • ”How did you think your actions would help?“

  • ”What were you trying to do?“

  • ”Are you interested in hearing how that impacted me?“

When stating your complaint, it helps to phrase things objectively, such as:

  • “When you contradict me in front of the team, it negatively impacts my ability to trust you. You’ve done this on these occasions ____” (List the specifics.)

  • ”This policy harms me but not others because it prevents me from doing ‘X’ while they operate under a different standard.“

  • ”Here are three examples of when I’ve requested information and been told it would be sent to me, but it never arrived and that hampers my ability to do my work.“

This is called “grounding your assertions.” Remember to back up your position with evidence; complaints based only on feelings are almost impossible to resolve. You need to give the other(s) involved something tangible to work with.

I recommend that you write things out and/or practice with a trusted friend. This way of working through complaints is not something that comes naturally. It’s a practice. I have failed more times than I’ve succeeded, but that’s what practice is about isn’t it? Trying, failing, trying some more and eventually gaining some level of skill and proficiency while knowing that the learning is never complete and there’s always room to improve. Be forgiving of yourself and others when something unskillful slips out – and it always does. This is deep and hard work and not many of us had good modeling for this as part of our education. An effective conversation for complaint is a skill that you develop over time and you’ll find it can serve you in all your relationships, not just those at work.

Be forgiving of yourself and others when something unskillful slips out – and it always does.

Check for agreement. Despite our best efforts, sometimes the people involved with the complaint have tunnel vision/hearing. They seem to be immune to considering any perspective besides their own. In such cases it can be helpful if they can walk in your shoes or to sit in your seat with your responsibilities and burdens. Asking them what they would do if they were in your position and someone came to them with the same complaint can be surprisingly effective.

Likewise, it’s helpful if you can let them know that you have thought about your complaint from their perspective. Demonstrating that resolving your complaint will benefit them will make it easier to gain their trust and cooperation.

Determine what resolution looks like. When you have a legitimate complaint, resolution is much more likely if you can state what will make things right for you. A good way to approach this is to consider the questions of:

  • ”What will make me whole again?“

  • ”What will bring me back into a sense of dynamic balance and harmony at work?“

  • ”What requests do I need to make and to whom in order to clear things and more forward?“

  • ”How can I phrase my requests so that they’ll be met in ways that work for me and the person to whom I'm making the request?“

When you bring your complaint forward, enter the conversation ready to ask for 100% of what you want to put things right. Be willing to hear an answer of no and be willing to negotiate for the difference. That means having at least two remedies in mind – the optimal one that you would like and the minimal one that, if agreed to, will allow you to move forward gracefully.

The sad reality is that there are times when your complaint will not be resolved, so you need to be prepared for that too. If, over time, you find that bulk of your complaint conversations leave you feeling frustrated, it may be prudent to think about changing your work situation. Feeling that all your efforts are in vain is demoralizing and has deleterious effects on your wellbeing.

The process of the conversation for complaint is deeply supported and enhanced when we can stay in our bodies. Practice the breathing steps above whenever you find yourself becoming ungrounded and losing your calm center.

If you are the person who’ll be trying to resolve the complaint

Up to this point we’ve focused primarily on the person with the complaint. Let’s switch the lens to whomever will be working to resolve things. First and foremost, make sure the person with the complaint feels they’ve been listened to and let them know that you will make reasonable efforts to address their concerns. Recall that one of the primary desires for anyone voicing a complaint is to have their feelings and perspectives acknowledged in a way that allows them to soften and relax. Whenever we feel genuinely listened to, we’re usually much more open to seeing all sides of things and negotiating in good faith.

Don’t take the complaint personally – even if you are the subject of it. You may be confronted by an angry employee who uses language that clearly blames you for the problem. That can trigger a defensive reaction before you’ve even had time to think about whether or not they have a legitimate gripe. As Wendy Palmer notes above, once the body’s defensive system gets activated, it’s extremely difficult to focus on finding creative solutions. Breathe deeply, exhale down through your feet and know that by not taking the bait you create an opening to find a resolution that works for all concerned.

Ask them to tell you the story of the complaint – starting at the beginning. Pay attention, take notes if that is your style. Identify the parts of their story that seem most important to them and verify with them that you now have all the relevant information. Once you understand what’s going on and why it’s a problem, proceed to ask them what would make them whole and see if they have ideas on how to resolve things. Invite them to be a thinking partner with you on how to work things out. If they have not thought through what resolution looks like, engage them in a conversation using the questions above.

Be prepared to tell them you may not be able to grant their requests but that you will do whatever you can to negotiate an outcome that leaves them in a better place.

Declare the matter closed. This is an important step. Once the resolution on the table has been accepted, all parties should check to see if they feel complete or if there is something else that still needs clearing. Take a few moments in silence and really sense into the matter; scan your body for unease and discomfort. If everyone feels settled, make an agreement that the matter is closed, and will not be revisited again. We do this to make sure that past issues are indeed resolved and that the residue of unresolved injuries doesn’t carry forward and leave people feeling like they can never get past an earlier event.

However, there is an exception to this point: if the conditions that created the complaint persist and the complaint continues to resurface, then recognize the matter was not properly resolved and it needs to be revisited. This is different than hanging on to old complaints and bringing them to bear on new situations.

A good complaint conversation is hygienic — it allows for wrongs to be righted, prevents residue from past issues from becoming chronic problems, creates healthy boundaries, and strengthens relationships.

The author would like to thank Wendy McLean for her invaluable feedback on this post.

©2021 by Ken Homer


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