Complain Your Way to Better Relationships

Previously, I talked about how complaining could provide a good emotional release. Complaining can also be a sign of a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. If you listen and respond well, complaints can be the key to building a better relationship.


  • In personal relationships: “We don’t have fun like we used to,” and “You never do what I ask you,” and “Why do you keep finding fault with everything?”
  • From employees: “They don’t care about me; they never ask what I think and then make decisions without knowing what really goes on,” and “They play favorites and have no idea who really does the work.”
  • From management: “Why can’t they just get along,” and “They have a job, they should just do it. They spend more time gossiping and complaining than working.”

THE PROBLEM: If complaints like this are so common, why aren’t they easy to resolve?

First, complaints often mask needs and fears, such as the need for appreciation, acknowledgment, and respect, or the fears of failure and loss of control.

Second, receivers of complaints respond defensively as if the complaints were personal attacks. They get angry and either try to change the subject or retaliate with an insensitive and often hurtful remark. As a result, relationships are damaged and negative feelings fester.

It is true that some people complain all the time. However, many of these people are extremely unhappy. Chronic complainers often feel helpless and stuck. They could use someone to listen and maybe coach them to see other possibilities for themselves if they are willing.

THE SOLUTION: As for dealing with part-time complainers, the cardinal rule is:

Respond as if the complainer has the right to have their issue acknowledged before the topic is changed or the complaint is belittled.

There are several reasons why this is hard for people to do. First, most receivers of complaints feel they are being accused of doing something wrong and bad. We have needs to be right and good, so any attempts to make us wrong and bad trigger defensiveness. This reaction is even more intense if we have any doubts about our competencies and are frightened that people will find out we are inadequate. So first, after hearing a complaint, feel when your muscles tighten up, then breathe before you speak. It is hard not to take a complaint personally, but you can’t acknowledge the complainer’s issue if you counter-complain or attack.

Second, we might not take the complaint seriously because we truly don’t respect the complainer, or we think the complainer is wrong to feel the way they do. Judgments get in the way of problem-solving. Your disrespect for people or their thoughts will show through no matter how hard you try to hide them. What will it take for you to listen deeper for the real issue? Are you willing to suspend your judgments for at least five minutes?

BRAIN TIPS: Complaints are inevitable in any relationship. If they aren’t addressed, they get bigger and occur more frequently, damaging the relationship over time. At work, unheard complaints crush morale and hinder growth regardless of pay raises and benefits. Some tips to help you move through a complaint include:

  1. Make the complaint “ours” instead of “yours.” Complaints indicate a problem the two of you should resolve together.
  2. Check to make sure the complainer wants the problem to be solved or if he or she just needs you to listen. As I mentioned earlier, complaints can be a great emotional release. If you try to solve the problem when someone just needs an ear, you will only frustrate them further.
  3. Don’t allow complaints to become a competition where someone has to be right and win. Seek to find out what the person really needs. Find the source of the emotion that is driving the complaint, such as the need to be appreciated, acknowledged, or maybe even a nap. The person will love that you listened with intent and care.
  4. If you feel attacked, at the end of the discussion (after the person feels heard and has had the chance to work through the complaint), let the person know. Risk being open and honest about your feelings. It creates the atmosphere where we can all have meaningful dialogues and respectful environments.

Complaints get a bad rap. It’s time we heed complaints as cries for help instead of running in the other direction. The courage it takes to do this is well worth the effort.
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