Complaints in the WorkplaceThe Fine Art of Complaining

By: Sarah Hightower

We all run into situations about which we are not pleased, and in many cases have a need to voice our dissatisfaction to someone, either to vent or to achieve satisfaction. This is called “complaining," and how well you deliver complaints may not only dictate the end results of the specific situation, but could set the tone for how your employer and co-workers view you as a team player.

Most of us do not like chronic complainers – in fact, most of us don’t like complainers chronic or not. Did you ever stop to wonder why?

People have a right to voice their displeasure – it is most often in their best interest to do so and in many cases complaints are the catalyst to the improvement of a product, system, service or process. So, what is it we don’t like about the process of complaining, the complaints or the complainers?

I think we can get to the heart of the matter by examining the dictionary.com definition of the two words, complaints and complain.

Complaints are defined as expressions of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment or a cause or reason for complaining; a grievance. Complain is defined as an act to express feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment, or an act to make a formal accusation or bring a formal charge.

If a complaint always remained the simple expression of dissatisfaction, we probably wouldn’t have much trouble. So what is the problem then – I believe it is summed up in one word “Accusation". Many people feel in order to voice complaints they must also find the reason and the fault for the bad situation.

Most assertiveness training specialists will tell you to always state your concerns in the form of what they call “I Statements," relating only the impact of the offending actions on you, never making an accusation or blaming anyone for your discomfort or lack of satisfaction.

So, then let’s take an objective look at this – it’s ok to be dissatisfied and it’s ok to voice dissatisfaction to the appropriate place or person – what isn’t ok?

It’s not appropriate to lay the blame for your dissatisfaction on a person or on something for which an individual is responsible.

An accusation in whatever form is most likely to offend. It’s pretty easy to understand then that your concern should be couched in some way that does not hint of an accusation or a threat.

From observing people over the years, many people feel if they take their complaints first to the highest level of authority the results will be faster and more satisfactory. I actually believe this is very untrue and is at the heart of many common workplace disputes.

I also notice many people approach a complaint situation as an offensive attack, feeling they have to lay out all the facts and point out all of the related dirty deeds. This is particularly true when complaining to a merchant or company when you are asking for a refund or the replacement of a product.

Remember a company may be very large, but your complaints are going to be read and interpreted by a person.

If you must complain, think about it first. Make sure you are not feeling victimized, it may cause you to appear as a whiner. Look at the facts objectively. Remember the truth will often lie somewhere in the middle.

The other side will have an opinion, consider what it might be and be willing to acknowledge that you may have played some role in the situation.

If it is a co-worker be nice – if it is a company go to the person who provided the service to you when possible. Do not go to the president of the company or immediately to the BBB. Escalation should only happen when you are unable to achieve results directly – and then escalation should only be to the next highest authority – again, not directly to the top.

Don’t practice law unless you are licensed to do so and don’t make threats, especially if you are not prepared to follow through. Before you send anything in writing read it with the eye of the receiver.

These rules will not work in every situation obviously; your department store will have an impersonal refund policy and an address to direct your complaints. But your attorney, doctor, counselor, mechanic, landscaper, plumber and banker will appreciate hearing about your dissatisfaction directly from you, rather than from the BBB or another regulatory agency.

The same goes for your co-workers, let them know in non-threatening, non-accusatory language that you would like to see something change. Before you do, make sure you have examined everything from all sides and that it is a legitimate concern and does not represent self-serving interests.

Focus on the complaint, watch your own behavior, and leave all of your bridges unburned and all of your relationships intact. Complaining is responsible, appropriate and part of our rights; after all, it was a group of complainers who landed on Plymouth Rock so long ago.

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