How to Complain Effectively (and Actually Change Something)


We all know deep down that complaining isn’t good for us—or much fun for the person we’re complaining to. At the same time, we also sometimes encounter situations we need to talk about afterwards so we can process what just happened. This element of processing, rather than venting, is the key to how to complain effectively.Processing is different to unhelpful complaining in that it’s constructive and helps us make sense of the situation. In other words, it’s effective complaining. We don’t want to complain about and ruminate on the same things repeatedly if we’re not going to do anything about them.As someone who has been known to (ahem) complain here and there, here are a few tips I’ve found helpful for upping my complaining game and doing it as effectively and constructively as possible:

How to Complain Effectively

1. Check your assumptions

So many conflicts blow up because we make assumptions and then behave as if our assumptions are the truth. We have a natural tendency to fill gaps in our understanding by creating meaning where there is none. But, when we take this meaning as fact, we are on the fast track to Wrong Conclusionville.So many conflicts blow up because we make assumptions, then behave as if they're true.When it comes to assumptions, I like to follow Tara Swiger’s advice: assume the best at first.This is never truer than with email and social media (or anything text-based). I used to feel slighted when someone would send me what I perceived as a curt email. Then, my inbox became busier, and I realised that brevity is a useful—and necessary—tool. When I assume the best, I save the energy I would have used for unnecessary complaining and can channel it into something far more productive.

2. Be upfront

Sometimes, even when we assume the best, the best is still complain-worthy. In these situations, upfront conversations about our experience with the people concerned serve our sense of integrity far better than gossiping about it to other people.Complaining about someone behind their back and not having that conversation with them if the opportunity arises is bad form. It’s way harder to have that tough, often vulnerable, conversation with someone when I know I’ve been complaining about them to a third party, rather than using the opportunity to process.If upfront conversations aren't possible or appropriate? Then it's our responsibility to sort out our feelings and make sure we're not ruminating until the ends of time. It's not in our best interests to give energy or attention to someone with whom we'll never be able to get closure. Part of how to complain effectively is knowing when to choose our battles carefully and not hang around waiting for other people to change.

3. Lead with “I-messages”

I-messages are statements about our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and other aspects of our experience. In general, these start with “I feel/think/believe… etc.” When we’re annoyed with someone’s behaviour, we tend to default to “you” messages. These start with "You're this/you did this/you said that..."Effective complaining focuses on “I-messages” because it keeps us focused on our experience. Rather than wandering off into assumptions, stories and untruths about the other person, we stick to what is true for us.At the end of the day, we don’t know 100% know what was going on for the other person unless we ask them. It doesn’t do us any good to dwell on what they did or said (or didn’t do/didn’t say). If we focus on our own feelings and experience, we can take responsibility for our reaction to the situation and extract useful lessons from it.

4. Leave your ego outside the conversation

Although it’s not something I’m proud of, I get hung up on justice. When I feel wronged, I want other people to agree with me. I want backup and validation that I am, of course, right and the other person is, of course, wrong.Hey there, ego.Just because we feel wronged doesn’t mean we’re in the right by default. We are more than capable of being unreasonable too.This is why it’s important to check our egos at the beginning of the conversation. When we’re invested in needing to be right beyond the point of being rational, we miss out. We miss out on connection. We miss out on the truth. Most of all, we miss out on valuable learning experiences that help prevent us getting into complain-worthy situations in the future.Remember, effective complaining isn't about complaining at all. It's about processing, moving forward, and coming out the other end a little wiser and more experienced.What do you find useful when you’re processing tricky situations? Do you have any suggestions around how to complain effectively? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.Further reading: are the stories you tell yourself helpful? Really? & is your life full of drama? Here's how to stop the cycleImage: Sagar Dani