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Melanie Gorman

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Want Some Cheese with That Whine? How to Stop the Complaint Cycle

Posted: 10/20/10 09:46 AM ET

No one likes a whiner. Fewer people like complainers. And even fewer like those who give ultimatums because their whining and complaining hasn't worked.

If you traced the evolution of a complaint, it would likely look something like this: unmet expectations lead to dissatisfaction, which leads to complaints, which lead to attempts to resolve the complaint, which fail, leading to more complaining, which leads to terrible frustration, which leads to threats if things don't change, which leads to ultimatums, which finally lead to consequences.

The issue for most of us is that we can tolerate a lot of complaining. Rarely are we frustrated enough to act out our ultimatums because frankly, we're afraid of the consequences. The problem is, when someone gets stuck in this cycle, the end result is often an unhappy, negative person, and in my opinion, there are far too many of those folks around.

In my work with the MarsVenus organization, I trained coaches on a technique I called the "Rock and the Hard Place." We often used this exercise when a client discussed feeling in this complaining cycle and being unable to see how to get out of it.

Whatever the details of the client's individual story, the template was always the same: the client was usually mad, hurt, stuck and feeling powerless to change things. These feelings often stemmed from a fear (or fears) about what might happen if they insisted on getting what they wanted. For example, "If I force him to commit to me, will he say yes? Or will he leave?" Or, "If I insist on a review from my boss, will they see the good things I've done or just discuss the bad things?" When someone was stuck in this cycle, the fear of negative consequences was usually enough to keep the client stuck and unfortunately enhance their sense of powerlessness.

From a coaching perspective, if someone stays stuck like this too long, they begin to lose their sense of personal power. Their sense of being able to control their world is shaken a bit because ultimately, our self-esteem is built on our track record of actions. If we teach ourselves through inaction that we can't have the things we want, we begin to believe that's just how life is.

To change this, we have to adjust how we navigate this cycle. Here are seven steps you can take to stop this habit and regain some of your personal power:

  1. Figure out why you're complaining. Often unmet expectations are the root of the problem. These expectations may be issues, values or beliefs you've never examined that lie at the heart of your dissatisfaction. Ask yourself what expectation you have about how the situation "should" be handled and compare that to what's really happening. Any discrepancies will help explain why you're unhappy.
  2. Ask yourself, are you a doer or a talker? Some people talk to solve problems and some people talk to understand problems. Solving problems is action-oriented; when you're in this place you're doing something. Understanding problems is much more passive and doesn't necessarily involve any action other than talking. Ask yourself which role you're in so you can understand who is best to talk to.
  3. Always be mindful of your audience. If you're in an action place, you want to talk with people who can help you do things, not someone who is going to encourage you to talk more. In reverse, if you're in an understanding place, you want to talk with people who will encourage (and not judge) your need to talk. A complete mismatch happens when problem-solvers talk too deeply or for too long with a problem-explorer.
  4. Tell people what you need: "I need to vent, complain, moan & groan" or "I need to toss this idea around and get your opinion on my solution." Alerting your audience about what you need can save everyone a lot of time and energy.
  5. Listen for shifts in the conversation. Sometimes people can get tired of hearing how unhappy you are. Their positive feelings for you will shift them into an action role because they want you to be happy and they've come to realize that talking isn't making it any better. If you're ready to move into action with them, great. If you're not ready, it's time to end the conversation and find someone more appropriate to talk to.
  6. People who love you want to fix things to make you happy. They can't help it; they just love you. But, recognize that it can be somewhat of a challenge for family, friends and spouses when you just want to talk and they want you to "do".
  7. People who love you are also biased and have LONG memories. If you've complained about your partner/spouse or some event repeatedly, they will remember and find it hard to forget. Their past experience will color their advice and their ability to listen with an open mind. When this happens, it's helpful to get objective, unbiased opinions like from a counselor or coach. Just be careful that the people you choose to talk with are trustworthy. Don't just pick anyone, be smart about it.

If you find that you're stuck in this cycle of complaining and not taking action, it's time to find out why. Set yourself a realistic goal for changing your situation. Decide what is acceptable and iron out your deal breakers. There's nothing wrong with a little moaning and groaning here and there, it's only a problem only when it becomes a habit.

 

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