How to Curb Complaining | Psychology Today

Source: Prostock Studio/iStock

Source: Prostock Studio/iStock

What to do if someone complains

If you are like many of us, join us or get on board now.

I write a lot about applying improv principles like “yes and” to everyday life. That’s when you agree with what someone else says and then add some new information. But if we don’t pay attention to how we’re “yes and-ing,” we’re likely to get sucked into someone else’s negative air.

Let’s look at why people complain, how we react, and how we can be more productive in dealing with these negative interactions in the future.

Why are we complaining?

Mark D. Alicke conducted a study on complaining back in the 1990s. They asked college students to record each time they complained and the response to their complaints over two three-day periods. The research team found that over 75% of the complaints were non-instrumental, meaning the goal was not to change anything. The four main reasons for complaints were:

  • Behavior: Complaints about people’s behavior.
  • Settings: Global statements about people, places and things.
  • Physically: Complaints about a person’s appearance.
  • Fulfill obligations: Statements about unfulfilled expectations or commitments.

The average number of complaints was over four per day.

The team also asked the subjects why they were complaining. Venting frustration was the main reason. But I have bad news about the vent.

The problem with the vent

Numerous studies have shown that venting is not an effective strategy to improve our mental state. We often hear that we should talk about what’s bothering us, but plain old venting actually leads to more feelings of frustration, not less.

People tend to respond to the release by agreeing or going along with it. And we tend to be drawn to people who participate and see those people as supportive.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the best response to the vent. A study asks us to be “challenger listeners”. Being a challenging listener means we should listen to people, but then make it difficult for them to think about their grievances. A therapist often does this. They might ask you to think about someone else’s perspective or point out blind spots in your reasoning.

Challenger listeners help people move from venting to problem solving, which leads to change.

How to become a challenger listener

I’ve written in my book about some ways to help people feel seen and heard without getting personally carried away by their grievances Play your way.

One exercise is called Plus Positive. That’s when you hear someone complain and try to cautiously add something positive to the conversation to change the dynamic of the vent.

Let’s say someone complains about how many snowy days we’ve had and how they’re stuck at home with their kids and getting cabin fever. I could start by corroborating their experience. “It’s a lot to coordinate all these impromptu snow days. You seem over it!” Then I can try to add my “plus” by saying something like, “But I’m looking forward to building snow tunnels with the girls today. Oddly enough, I love building snow tunnels!”

It’s important to validate someone’s experiences and feelings before adding anything that isn’t a complaint. Hopefully this will allow you to connect while also preventing you from getting caught up in unproductive venting.

And if you want to complain less, try doing what the subjects in the study led by Alicke did. Track all your complaints over a three day period, why you made each complaint and how people responded to it. I think you will find it enlightening. Think about whether your complaints were instrumental (to bring about change) and whether or not people were challenging listeners or enablers. Then make some changes and try again.

Hopefully, these tools will help you curb complaints. And when all else fails, remind yourself that letting go won’t make you feel better in the long run.

good luck out there

I have your back

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