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Defense Mechanisms

Turn Complaining into a Strategy

Complaining gets a bad rap. Here’s how to turn it into a positive force.

Key points

  • When helping people make positive changes for their health, complaints often follow.
  • Really listening to complaints can lead to understanding what a person is feeling.
  • There are many ways to turn complaints into a strategy.
Farknot_Architect | iStock
Source: Farknot_Architect | iStock

Complaining seems to be having its moment recently—and not-so recently. When working with clients, encouraging them to try something new or to change an existing behavior is often accompanied by complaints. Sometimes they are more frequent, more intense, or louder than others.

What are people actually expressing?

Is it helplessness?

A realization that change is difficult, and doesn’t feel great?

That something, somehow, is wrong?

That life isn’t fair?

That no one really understands?

Or is the complaining a sort of venting before taking action?

An expression of fear? (as in, “I couldn’t possibly do this.”)

A search for pity?

A plea for social support?

This is a long list, but all of the above seem relevant and in play. At any given time, complaining can be an expression of any one of these feelings.

Merriam-Webster puts it succinctly. Complaining is “to express grief, pain, or discontent.” That covers a lot of ground.

Complaining involves a lot of negativity.

We humans are wired for negativity. The impact of negativity is something like 5 to 1, negative vs positive. Given this scenario, complaining is highly likely. In fact, it may even be inevitable!

When you are in the business of helping people change (in my case, making changes to healthier behaviors), you can almost always anticipate some pushback.

Change can be an uncomfortable, bumpy road. Let’s face it: Behavior change is usually not anyone's favorite thing, unless it means we get to go on a great vacation or have won the lottery!

When it comes to health, many people are discontent. They may be complaining that there is something about themselves they would like to change. They may also be complaining that they can’t seem to be able to change it.

Then, once they start to change a few things, the change is not always embraced full-tilt. Complaining can follow.

What to do?

The most important thing is to take the complaint seriously. The person doing the complaining has their reasons for expressing themselves in this way. It is up to the person asking for the change to listen, use the complaint as information, and then offer an appropriate solution.

Look beyond the complaint and try to understand what is really being said.

For example, it could be:

“This is too hard, I am not sure I can do this.”

“I’d rather not. This is not in my comfort zone.”

“I’m not sure this is worth it. Will I get results?”

“I am struggling. I need support.”

Whatever is underneath the complaint, there are several strategies that can help turn that in to something positive.

  1. Break the change down into small, doable bits. This fosters the development of confidence, reduces fear, and keeps the goal from being a giant leap that overwhelms.
  2. See it as an opportunity to name the feeling. Awareness of what is going on underneath helps the person feel understood.
  3. Identify the negativity, and then rewrite the narrative into something positive.
  4. Encourage! Support any skills necessary for the change.
  5. Let them know that they are not alone!
  6. Give permission to complain, but be clear that you are there to find solutions.

When I was a parent to young children. I always told them, “It’s OK to complain, just no whining! Merriam-Webster calls whining “the act of complaining in an annoying, childish, or petulant manner.” As some have written, even children as young as 3 years old know that difference.

I often tell my clients, jokingly, that complaining is welcome, but whining is not. Complaining is a good way to vent, to express doubts, to ask for help. It is something that we can all learn from. As a behavior change strategy, it really has merit.

Which brings me to the last point: What if you discover that you are the one doing the complaining? I know that I am fully capable of complaining about too much paper work, traffic, inefficiencies everywhere, and, of course, the weather. The same suggestions apply. You can try to uncover the meaning behind the complaining, and then see what you can do about it. Separate out the things you can change from those you can’t, then devise strategies to deal with both of them.

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