Compliment KOs Complaint!
(I’ve been reading too many sports headlines.)
We all know people who are mired in complaint, no matter how well things are going. They complain about the weather (when there’s nothing more pressing to complain about) and if the weather is nice, they will complain that it won’t last, or that it is unseasonable. Sunshine can be such a burden.
At first I tried to be sympathetic and express my concern, but that approach only extended the complaint period. I also offered suggestions, but that was unsuccessful, too. There was always a reason why my suggestions wouldn’t work, the old “yes, but” game.
I finally understood that “complaint” didn’t necessarily mean that something was wrong; it was a form of communication that was more about style than content, so I had to develop a new tactic for dealing with it. There was no point in offering suggestions, because the purpose of the complaint was not to get help. I didn’t want to counter-complain either, because that made the conversation much too long and I didn’t want to adopt that style of interaction for myself. I had to find a way to end the conversation without damaging the relationship that was being offered by the exchange. After all, I couldn’t always have an appointment I had to rush to when I spoke to that person. That white lie can become a little too predictable.
I stumbled on an alternative approach by accident: the bright side. One day when the complaints were non-stop, I found a “bright side.” I expressed my concern and amazement (!) at the difficult situation, and then said something that was about what could be learned from what was happening, or how it prepared the person for future, similar encounters. Stopped him cold. I could then excuse myself on a positive note without the other person feeling abandoned in a time of trouble.
I also found a second alternative: the compliment. As one of these people was going on about the difficulty of working with his boss, I clucked in sympathy for a while and then complimented him on his ability to work under difficult situations and get anything accomplished. He was quite surprised, and thanked me.
These two approaches work when you are sure the complaint is more about someone’s style of interaction than about the content. When someone has a problem, I am genuinely interested and try to help, but if I sense the compliant is more stylistic than substantive, then these two approaches maintain the relationship and allow a respectful exit.
And they work with substantive complaints, too. Sometimes there is no way to help someone except to provide moral support or to point out something more positive about the situation, especially about how well someone is handling it. The compliment focuses on the person instead of the situation, and reframes the topic.
Sometimes shifting the emphasis a bit is all that is needed for people to find their own solution to whatever problem is draining their energy. And that is the best help you can provide.