Have you seen the challenge on FB or Instagram? "Go one whole day without complaining and watch how your life will be so different!"
It's widely accepted wisdom, and even proven science that complaining is not good for us. Listening to someone complain makes us less intelligent, it damages our mental health, and according to the most recent FB experiment, makes the people we complain to more negative as well.
However, complaints also make things happen. Complaints are the only way for a company to know that its practices are making their customers unhappy. Complaints drive the creation of laws. And without complaints, we wouldn't have most of our public services. Humans, in general, respond well to complaints. And those groups and individuals who are unable to complain or their complaints are ignored, are those that have the least access to what they need or want.
So complaints, in and of themselves, aren't the problem. So what's the problem?
The problem comes with when and how we complain.
There is effective complaining and toxic complaining. The kind of complaining we need to cut out of our lives is the toxic complaining. The kind of complaining we need more of, is effective complaining, or better stated, "an Assertive Problem Response."
When we have a problem, we need to say something, as problems usually do not go away on their own. How do we address the problem in a way that is effective?
First, what not to do.
Complaining regularly about things that can't be changed - This is toxic, because over time, it wears on people. They stop listening or taking the complaints seriously.
Complaining about things that most people experience everyday - Complaining about the weather, traffic, annoying people, we all experience these things. Making mention once in a while to commiserate is bonding. But actively and regularly complaining about it to others who experience the same struggles has two potential effects - either they agree and in turn start complaining and the conversation turns negative. Or they feel frustrated, because the complaints make it sound like our situation of traffic is so much worse than everyone else's, which it's not. When we complain about things other people experience, the question becomes, why is your experience with this thing any worse than any one else? The answer is always - because you have less tolerance for it, not because it's worse than what others experience. And people don't like to be around intolerant people for very long. It's wearing.
Complaining without a solution - The world is both a fabulous and terrible place. If all we talk about are the negatives without offering up solutions, people learn that the complainer sees things through dark colored glasses, and to avoid them. People like to be around others who have solutions, not more rocks to put in their emotional backpack of how terrible the world is.
Complaining without humor - We all have struggles. If we can't find humor somewhere, especially in the day to day trials and tribulations, we teach others that we are dreary and a downer.
Complaining without balancing it with positive observations and hope - Complaining is important to get things done sometimes. So is hope. If hope that there will be change isn't there, and it's just hopeless complaining over and over, it gets very tiresome. At first, people will be on board, but over time, they get weary, realize there is no horizon in sight, and jump ship. But before that happens, a lot of people find other things to complain about - namely our complaining.
That all said, how can complaining be effective?
Assertive Problem Responses
Bring up problems to the right people at the right time. - Know who and when to complain to, that will be the most effective. Shouting on the street corner that you don't like a law may work, but calling a representative, and asking others to do the same, will be better. Complaining to co-workers at the water cooler will probably not change much, except your reputation. But bringing something up with a supervisor or HR might make a difference. And certainly, complaining about politicians or our least favorite family member at Thanksgiving dinner isn't doing to do anything but cause an angry conversation or bitterness.
Describe the problem then give a solution. - When giving a speech or writing a book, authors explain what's wrong (a variation of complaining) then the rest of the time, explain the solution. They aren't selling the problem, they are selling the solution. Politicians do this when they appeal to their constituents. They get their base riled up about the problem, then, point to the solution. Whether we like their solution determines whether we vote for them.
Complain sparingly. - When we complain sparingly, people will really listen when we do. It has a lot more impact. The more often we complain, the less people listen.
Complain with purpose. - When we do choose to complain, know exactly why we are doing it - to get something off our chest that's been bothering us (that's usually the case), to solve a problem, or to change something? The reason why we complain determines the best time and place to do so.
Apologize if we complain a lot in a moment of weakness. - Sometimes, we're in a mood and we let loose a lot of complaints on someone. In other words, we "unload" on them. Since we don't complain often, and we know how much of a burden complaining to others is, apologizing goes a long way to help soften the negative impact it has on others. But make sure, if we apologize, that we follow up by not doing it again very soon.
Vent emotionally in private. Bring problems up publicly for a purpose. - The biggest gaffs of complaints are when people complain in public about something without thinking about it. If we need to vent, as we sometimes do, keep it in private, and again, sparingly. And if we bring up issues in public, that it's well thought out and on purpose, for a long term goal. An example might be at a board meeting, where we bring up issues to appeal to the group to find a solution. Complaining at a board meeting to vent our feelings wastes other people's time and creates a negative working environment on the team. Also, even though people rarely say it, people who complain in public often gain a reputation and lose respect.
Going a whole day without complaining is a noble effort, but in the end, probably not the best of goals, because we can easily cut out the important skills of assertiveness in our attempt to not be too negative. Going a whole day, a whole year even, without toxic complaining, now that's something to strive for. We can be an assertive problem responder, and make a difference without bringing more negativity into the world.