Coaching: What can I learn by inquiring differently?
Case Study: How do I deal with complaining?

What’s the first thought you have when you hear someone complain?

“They should be grateful for what they have.”

“How can they complain when they have so much or more than me?”

“We’ve done so much for them, and now they’re complaining?”

Complaining seems like an ever-present reality. Like with any limiting pattern of thinking we feel stuck in, if we inquire more deeply we’re bound to find some new angle on it. This is especially true of complaining.

It takes discipline and hesitation to stay curious when someone is complaining. This is true whether we hear others complaining or we’re complaining ourselves. It’s easier to see the ways others get stuck in limiting patterns. It requires discipline for us to use that as a mirror for the ways we also get stuck in limiting patterns.

When somebody complains, we usually assume that the complainer is either entitled, wronged, lazy. We figure they just need to vent or get it off their chest, that there may be no way of fixing it so we should just let them winge on and get it out of their system. The problem with this? Complaining doesn’t get it out of their system, this kind of venting rarely ventilates the system. Complaining to others actually creates a sharedsystem with the listener, and keeps the negative energy circulating inside of it.

Have you considered that complainers may actually just be disappointed? People complain because something that matters to them isn’t going as they expected. Rather than claim that expectation, and how much it matters to them, they complain about it.

Developmental psychologists Kegan and Lahey (2001) explain that behind every complaint, is a commitment. Inquire into what’s behind the complaint, and we’ll most likely find a commitment to something that matters to us. We may not even realize how committed we are to a certain expectation, until it goes unfulfilled, gets disappointed, or is offended in some way. If you hear yourself or others complaining, congratulations, you just found a committed person!

Now to find out what that commitment is…

Practice: What can I try?
Exercise: Finding the Commitment

Most developmental learning begins with our ability to name what needs to change in someone else’s thinking, and then the willingness to search for that same change within ourselves. Let’s start with hearing someone else’s complain, and then try to find the commitments behind our own complaints.

In one of my workshops in an organization recently, someone complained, “I got a calendar invite to this meeting on Monday, I have no idea whyI’m invited. I go to the meeting and sit there wondering, ‘Why am I in this meeting? What are we trying to accomplish? Do they really need my input on this?’ Do they think I have nothing else to do?”

The complainer is unsure why they were invited to a meeting, but they attend anyway, and remain in the dark as to the purpose and contribution that’s expected from them. They leave the meeting unresolved and retaining negative feelings about how it was handled. They come to you to complain, how can you help them uncover what’s behind their complaint?

Let’s craft a practice question:
Move from, “Why are they complaining?” toward, “How are they being disappointed?”

  • Are they committed to having their time respected? How so?
  • Do they think that the meeting organizer ought to state the purpose of the meeting?
  • Do they expect that someone should make the task clear so they could know whether they accomplished it or not?
  • Do they believe that consensus-seeking and collaboration are lazy forms of decision-making, that instead project leaders should gather information and be trusted to use their authority to make a decision?

Clues: Look for “shoulds”, “oughts”, and other assumption language to find out if the complainer holds expectations that they aren’t necessarily aware of. You can help them get out of this cycle of assumptions by asking questions like,

  • Do you have agreements about how you use one anothers’ time?
  • Are you able to inquire about the purpose of a meeting before you accept the invite?
  • What would count as a successful accomplishment for this meeting organizer?
  • Do you share an understanding or process in the organization for consensus-seeking, collaboration, and decision-making?
  • If no to any of these questions, how would the organizer know they are offending you on any of these points?

Once another layer of commitments, expectations, assumptions of shared understandings is uncovered, the complainer has the opportunity to:

  • Create agreements that protect their time
  • Take the initiative to ask about the purpose of the meeting and how they’ll be expected to contribute
  • Start to determine what counts as moving work forward amongst the group
  • Design a process for better gathering information for decision-making
  • Take responsibility for the ways they keep cycles of frustration and assumptions closed by complaining rather than claiming their own commitments and expectations.

To remember:

  • Complaining is different than observations or preferences: saying the office is too cold, or the food is too spicy is a comment about your own comfort, preference, or taste. It isn’t an invitation to claim a commitment to something that matters to you. Though if it’s used as an indirect request, then it’s worth itto go seeking there as well. If your office mate exclaims, “It’s too cold in here!” You might wonder whether they expect you do something to change things for them based on their outloud complaint.
  • Communication breaks down in scenarios where a commitment goes unclaimed, and offense assumed, especially if you were to respond with a snarky, “how is that my problem?” There is, of course, a more direct form of claiming a commitment and using it to frame a clear request. It might sound something like this, “I’m cold, and I think I’ll concentrate better if I’m warmer. Would you be willing to turn down the air conditioning, please?”

Further questions:

  • When your people complain: What are they committed to? How are they feeling disappointed?
  • When your customers complain: What was their expectation? Where did it originate? How was their expectation disappointed?
  • When you complain: What expectations do you discover? What matters more to you than you realized?
  • When you have a culture of complaint: Do people feel empowered to set and share their expectations? Is there a forum for them to claim their commitments?

About Dr. Cara Miller

Cara Miller supports leaders and organizations who are on the edge of becoming something new as a professor, speaker, organizational designer, developmental coach, and change consultant. Dr. Miller encourages people to stay curious about their own leadership development, empowers their personal and professional growth, and encourages them to move past their limits. By asking better questions, the individuals and organizations she works with develop greater capacity and increase results beyond those they set out for themselves.

Bring a Developmental Coach into your email inbox

Subscribe to receive our monthly email content, Free Coaching!

Site Design By Rebecca Pollock
Development By Alchemy + Aim