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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.