Is there someone in your family who complains all the time? Then you know what a corrosive irritant complaining is. You can bear the complaining for a while, but then it begins to get to you, and the next thing you know you’re close to hating the complainer. Complainers are people who inevitably make a sunny day feel like a cold drizzle.
This is so corrosive because of the family dynamics complainers launch. X complains. Y soon starts complaining about X’s complaining. X complains about being hated by Y…. Soon there’s going to be a blow up. In the end this is a recipe for everyone making distance from X and for X to feel disliked by everyone.
So we gotta figure this out, right? Especially since it’s the kind of problem that never seems to go away on its own. Right?
Here then is the Q and A.
What IS complaining in the first place?
OK, this is radical, but true: Complaining is talking about what’s wrong, or disappointing, or imperfect, or displeasing with a person or situation. Radical indeed. Complaining is so woven into our habits of conversation, that with a definition like this many will wonder how we could ever talk at all without complaining.
Are there any alternatives to complaining?
Complaining shows its true self in the light of the alternatives. Let’s say you walk into what you’d hoped was a really nice restaurant and it soon becomes clear that the service is on the slow side, and the butter is cold.
One really good, and really easy, alternative is: You say nothing. I told you it was easy! Who said you had to say something! If things are otherwise fine and if you have anything else at all to talk about, why not just say nothing? Replace talking about what’s wrong with talking about what’s interesting.
Why don’t people use this alternative? Because complaining is so often such an ingrained habit. And because for many of us, if we didn’t complain we’d have nothing to say. Sad, but true.
Another really good alternative is to talk about what’s good. Cleanse your palate of the slow service and cold butter by talking about the interesting menu or the nice décor. Replace talking about what’s wrong with appreciating what’s good.
Why don’t people use this alternative? Because many people are error activated: they come alive in the presence of what’s wrong or what’s missing, while the good stuff doesn’t seem to interest them much. And because appreciating is actually harder than finding what’s wrong. AND because finding flaws is what passes as intelligence among the less intelligent: the really hard, and wonderful, thing is bringing out everything that’s wonderful.
Finally, there’s this alternative: quickly convert the impulse to complain into problem solving. That slow, but quite nice, waiter brought me my salad and the greens are too wilty for my taste. OK, that’s the deal. So, now what?
If the salad is good enough, then I can just shut up and eat it. Who in hell is going to want to hear about my wilty greens?
But if I deem my salad unacceptable, that’s fine too. I still say nothing to my tablemates. I just call the waiter over and send the salad back. “Please, bring me another salad with fresh greens.” Period. Done. Finished. And complaint free.
Why don’t people quickly convert disappointment into problem solving? Oh, man, lots of reasons. They don’t have solutions. The don’t have words to launch their solutions. They’re used to other people coming up with solutions (which they too often do, just to shut the complainers up). They’re in the habit of feeling disempowered.
Why is there so much complaining in the first place?
But we need to dig a bit deeper. There is SO MUCH complaining and it is SO HARD to eradicate. What’s going on?
If complaining were a large furnace, there’d be a lot fuel sources stoking that furnace.
First of all, there’s social disempowerment. In every part of our society there are hierarchies of power. In a company, the poorest paid and most expendable are at the bottom. They have the least power. In the military, it’s the privates and seamen who have the least power. The waiters in a restaurant. The kids in a school. The patients in a hospital.
And wherever you find a disempowered group, you will find complaining. The less power, the more complaining.
That’s because, as we’ve said, empowerment is the antidote to complaining. In the military a general can change a lot of things he dislikes. A private can’t change anything.
Kids complain a lot—fuss, whine, noodge—because they’re at the bottom of every hierarchy. And babies! Pretty much their ONLY mode of communication is complaining, in the form of tears. Waah, waah, waah…something really sucks…figure it out…help me…waah, waah, waah. It’s nature’s way of keeping babies alive.
Here’s another source of fuel for complaining: anxiety. Anxious, fearful people tend to be hypervigilant, constantly scanning their world for threats. The things others might ignore on a plane ride, for example, will be throbbing with risk for an anxious person: being packed in with coughing, sneezing people, hearing weird aircraft noises, being ignored by a flight attendant, seeing strange-looking passengers.
Anxious people may not mean to complain, but they feel they can’t help sharing their sense of all the things they feel are threatening, and that’s sure going to sound like complaining.
Another source of complaining is anger. We estimate that the majority of people are carrying around a burden of free-floating anger. That is, they are so angry so often at so many things that their anger has cut loose from its moorings and is just floating around waiting for any opportunity to come out.
How can there be so much anger? Disempowerment! Which so commonly leads to disappointment, grievance, and resentment at all the people who’ve hurt you or denied you what you thought was yours. The great masses of people who feel themselves to be passed over, left behind, cheated out of what they thought was rightfully theirs.
And all this anger pops loose in little burstlets with everything angry people find amiss. You see this very powerfully in our on-line culture. Everyone with any visibility experiences the poison of the impotent rage out there, always connected to a complaint. Trolls are just angry complainers.
The next source is intermittent reinforcement. I’ll discuss this tremendously important idea in the next blog, but for now I’ll just say that when you reward behavior on a random, occasional basis, you are in effect training people to persist in that behavior. The gambling industry is entirely based on this. Throw the gamblers a reward every once in a while, and they’ll keep gambling forever
Well, the very same force keeps complainers complaining. Of course, most of the time when they complain, just like a gambler they get no payoff. But every once in a while they get paid attention to, sympathized with, assisted, helped, given presents. Just often enough to keep them feeling that complaining actually pays off.
One more source of fuel for complaining is the lack of an alternative. Complainers often act helpless because they feel helpless and too frequently are helpless. They don’t know how to internally process a complaint so as to turn it into effective action. Let’s put it this way: they don’t know how to send back the salad. This may seem stupid to you, but it’s real to them.
And let’s face it, in some areas of life—like traveling by commercial airliner—it’s almost impossible to convert problems into solutions.
So maybe now you understand much better why so many of the people around us are such complainers.
How then do you stop a person from complaining?
This is actually a tremendously important question. A complainer is a pooper in the pool of life. She will soon drive others out of the pool. Loneliness and futility are the destiny of complainers.
Sadly, unless the complainer is a member of your immediate family, you’d better just let go of complaining about their complaining. You don’t have the leverage. So just let it go.
Now many of us have kids who are huge whiners and complainers. Here’s what doesn’t work: Telling them to shut up. Telling them to practice an attitude of gratitude. Complaining about their complaining. With these tactics, all you’re doing is stuffing down temporarily what’ll pop up later.
Here’s what does work.
First, stop reinforcing the complaining. Never pay attention to it. Never discuss it. Never react to it. And certainly never show concern. Treat complaining as if the person were speaking an unintelligible language. Here’s the idea: “We don’t speak Complaint in this house.”
BUT that means you can’t complain either. That’s the second part: you cannot be a role model for complaining. A complaining dad will never convince a kid to stop complaining. And this is tough, because so often we don’t recognize when we’re complaining. We don’t intend to complain, so we think we’re not doing it. But remember the definition from the beginning here: “Complaining is talking about what’s wrong, or disappointing, or imperfect, or displeasing with a person or situation.” Saying anything negative at all about anything. If you cut that out, the world, and your family, will thank you.
The third part is a really long-term task: converting your kid’s impulse to complain into the ability to convert complaints into solvable problems. So if Suzy at the dinner table suddenly says, “Ew, my fork has some gross old egg on it,” you say to her, “OK: now what is the solution to that problem?” And of course the only right answer to that question, “Uh, to get up and get another fork?” At which point you ask her to do the whole thing all over again, dropping the whole ew-thing and instead just getting up quietly and getting a new fork.
If Jake goes, “Peas!?!?! I hate peas,” you say, “What is the solution to that problem?” You all talk about it, and soon Jake gets it that the immediate solution is to just shut up and not eat his peas. A longer-term solution is to talk later to whoever is in charge of meals in the family about alternatives to peas. Like maybe, peas for everyone else, baby carrots from the fridge for Jake.
Converting pain to problem solving, while by-passing complaining, is a skill. A very real and important skill. One of the skills most associated with a successful, happy life. The family is the place to learn it. The parents are the people to teach it. This method is the way to teach it.
Now what if the complainer is a spouse. Well, this is a lot harder. The only way to accomplish it at all is to get buy-in, to be able to say: “I realize I have a problem, and I need you to help me.” And the only way for him to see he has a problem is for him to understand you have a problem. “Honey, I wonder if you realize that you spend a lot of time complaining. I can’t stand it, and it’s driving me away from you. Really! I’m so sorry. I don’t want it to be this way. I need you to agree to work on this with me [turning complaining into problem solving].”
His move will be to deny he does it so often, or at all! Don’t argue. Just say, “Well, maybe you’re right. Would you be willing for me to point out to you each time I feel you’re complaining over the next few days?”
Let’s hope he says yes!
And then you just point out each time he, from your point of view, complains. Don’t get into a discussion about what really is a complaint or not. You are just wanting to be on record that without realizing it he says seven things an hour that sound like complaining to you.
Then you get his consent to work on changing this. Not because you’re right, but because right or wrong what he’s doing is pushing you away. And we’ve talked already about working on changing this. Help him see all his alternative, including saying nothing and focusing on finding the complaint-causing problem.
Complaint based or complaint burdened interactions take a huge toll on our relationships. We wear out our welcome and we wear ourselves out. But an entire lunch spent with someone without complaints can feel like a piece of heaven.