Yesterday, I flew from Miami to Portland. As is my habit, I eavesdropped on the people around me. In the seats behind me, a woman regaled her friend for over an hour about the terrible customer service snafu she had endured. The airline, it seemed, had made a mistake with her reservation. I won’t bore you with the details but trust me when I say there was a hero, a villain, and a battle. Indeed, it seems that for middle class people living in the modern world, complaints related to poor customer service are epic stories of tragedy and triumph. Dissatisfaction with credit card companies and online retailers may not have the makings of summer blockbusters, but most folks seem convinced they are narratives worth telling. Me? I think the woman’s complaint is an argument in favor of noise cancelling headphones.
Complaining is a universal phenomenon, and—I would guess—one as long as human history. It is easy to imagine Ugh, our cave-dwelling ancestor, sitting with his buddies and whining about life. “These rocks are too hard to sleep on,” he gripes. Or, “it’s so hard to see after the sun sets” or “No one ever lives past thirty years old!” Simply put, people complain because there is stuff to complain about. Gripes reflect a psychological state—some internal threshold—for dissatisfaction. You don’t complain if your shoe is untied or if you break the tip off a pencil but you do complain if your luggage is lost or someone rear ends your car. For as common as complaining is, it is surprising that so little scientific or popular attention has been devoted to understanding who complains, and why. Perhaps more importantly, people often seem to accept complaining as the natural course of things. Might there be a better alternative?
The psychology of complaining
You’ve heard the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It suggests that complaining has a purpose: people who grouse about problems demand attention and—if this saying is to be believed—get solutions. This way of thinking assumes that complaints are “instrumental;” that is, they are offered as suggestions and given in the spirit of promoting some specific change. There is, at least, a hint of evidence that complaining can sometimes be useful. For example, in a recent study, researchers tried to cut in line to get to a check-out counter. To do so, they either initiated a conversation with the person in front of them and then asked to cut or complained and then asked to cut. Compared to a control condition both the conversation and complaint strategies seem to be more effective. That said, conversation was successful in 94% of cases whereas complaining was only successful in 66% of cases. Even so, complainers might be successful enough of the time to reinforce their bristly behavior. They might even come to believe that customers who complain are more likely to get refunds, employees who grumble are more likely to see improved policies, and spouses who complain are more likely to get concessions from their partners.
Anyone who has been alive for more than three minutes will be rightly skeptical of this. Voicing objections may get you to the head of the line or earn refunds but this same strategy often does not make for a better romantic relationship. Intuition tells us that there must be more to the story. Fortunately, social scientists have investigated the psychology of complaining.
In one of the first published studies on the topic—now nearly 30 years old—researchers asked students to track their daily complaints. The grumbling was widespread. Examples include:
Reading the list of complaints about prices, body image, work, social interactions, obligations, politics, sports, commuting, and relationships it might be hard to believe that anything is satisfactory. Interestingly, the students who participated in this study admitted that only a quarter of their 4-5 complaints (on average) per day were instrumental (offered to fix a problem). The remaining 75% were attempts to vent or to gain sympathy. In fact, the people who were forced to listen to these complaints rarely had any control whatsoever about the issue being complained about. It’s not as if best friends are going to mend shirts, improve restaurant food, or make the guy on the bus cool. What listeners did do—however—was agree. The researchers found a tendency for buddies to nod their heads appreciatively: “that’s right, cars are too expensive.” This finding suggests that there is a kind of social loop in complaining. The complainer gets to feel good, and the complainee—if that’s a thing— makes a deposit in a mental bank account in which she can be guaranteed agreement when it is her turn to make a withdrawal.
Unfortunately, the tit-for-tat arithmetic of complaining does not hold up under scrutiny. A 2009 series of studies examined the effects of complaining on people’s moods. I can boil down all the complicated methodology and statistical analyses in a two-word summary. It is: bad news. When people complained, the people they complained to felt worse afterward. As if being a social downer wasn’t enough, the complainers, themselves, felt worse. So, yeah, you might get to skip to the head of the line when you gripe but you sort of drag everyone’s experience down when you do it. What’s more, research suggests that chronic complainers are resistant to problem-solving and advice, and also bum everyone out.
In the end, the complaining equation yields only a negative number. 75% of complaints are made to vent or gain sympathy, but don’t boost mood. Of the 25% that are aimed at improving conditions, it may only be about two thirds of those that are successful, and they still drag down people’s moods. And when complaining becomes chronic, it is a habit that is hard to break. Thank goodness there is a superior alternative.
The more satisfying alternative
At their heart, complaints communicate what a person does not want. They do not wish to be underpaid, they would rather not have a flat tire, they don’t like their dinner. As simple and obvious as it might sound, the alternative to this is problem focus is known as solutions focus. The solutions focus mindset hinges on a powerful but deceptively difficult question: what do you want? A shift toward a focus on desirable results can be empowering, boost mood, and accelerate progress. But this mental gymnastics is easier said than done.
Take, for instance, the example of a person who is worried about messing up an important presentation at work. She might fret that she does not enjoy speaking, experiences stage fright, and feels the pressure to be perfect. If you were to ask her what she wants she might very well answer, “I don’t want to mess up.” The astute reader will catch the problem here: she is verbalizing what she doesn’t want (the mistakes she is hoping to avoid). But what is it she does want? A little prodding my reveal that she wants to become a competent presenter or that she wants to close the deal with the client. Helping a person shift from an undesirable outcome to be avoided to a desirable outcome to be pursued can carry with it a profound shift in mood and motivation.
It was exactly this insight that the pioneers of the solutions focus orientation realized back in the early 1980s. It was a time when, in the United States, health insurance companies limited the number of psychotherapy appointments that they would provide. Instead of spending years on a Freudian sofa, people suffering depression or anxiety were faced with the prospect of wrapping up their problems in about 8 sessions. That didn’t leave a lot of time for venting, seeking sympathy, or complaining. The solutions focus pioneers tried to accelerate the process by shifting the focus from “what’s broken” to “what works” and from “what already happened” to “what’s next.” Their success was such that their approach was modified for coaching and is increasingly used in teams and management.
To accomplish a focus on solutions facilitators such as coaches or managers begin by not inviting problem talk. They don’t outlaw it; they aren’t afraid of it; they don’t pretend like problems don’t exist; it’s just that they don’t knowingly steer conversations that direction. They understand that a problem focus makes people myopic: people look for causes of the problem. They treat their search like finding a missing puzzle piece; if only they can locate exactly the right piece they can address it (see image 1). It is as singular in focus—and about as fun—as bailing water out of a sinking canoe. By contrast, a focus on desirable outcomes is more like working on the center of a puzzle and developing it outward. In this metaphor, a person can snap new pieces in virtually anywhere along the edge (see image 2). This method offers more options, more experimentation, more possibility, and—ultimately—more positivity.
Image 1: Looking to solve a problem
Image 2: Developing solutions
So, what can you do to sidestep the complaining habit and adopt a solution focus? Rest assured, it is surprisingly easy. The pioneers of this orientation tinkered with a number of tools and here are three of the most common and effective ones:
1) Articulate your vision of what you want. This is most famously accomplished by answering the so-called “miracle question.” This question comes in a variety of forms but a simple version is this: If you woke up tomorrow and things were mostly as you want them to be, what would be different? What would you notice? This question forces people to anchor their answers in the positive, and to focus on tangible changes in behavior, conditions, or relationships. These specifics can then be used to open a discussion about making these changes.
To use our example of the woman who wants to be a competent presenter, she might answer the miracle question by saying, “I would feel prepared. I would show up ahead of my presentation and make certain everything was correct. I would have practiced and know my material well. In fact, maybe I would have done a dry run with my team and gotten feedback.” These specifics might shed light on the need for practice and feedback. Instead of focusing on the problem of stage fright she would be able to create a schedule for preparation.
2) Plumb successes from the past rather than winging about all that has gone wrong. In solutions focus terminology, this is called “interviewing for exceptions.” Here, a person looks at a positive past by answering a single, counter-intuitive question: when wasn’t this a problem? Again, to return to our example of the woman with presentation anxiety. She likely has a personal narrative that includes a long history of presentations gone awry. She could tick off the time her PowerPoint didn’t work, the time she froze, and the time she said the company’s name wrong. Even those these are legitimately cringeworthy events, there might be more to her history than she has unearthed.
When asked, “when wasn’t presentation a problem?” she might even push back with an understandable “it’s always been a problem!” Pushed further, however, she might admit that not every talk she has given has been a total debacle. She might grudgingly admit that her eighth grade presentation on the province of Ontario was okay. When asked, “what was different about that presentation?” she might answer “The stakes were lower and there were no experts in the room.” Voila! She has suddenly gained insight: her own relative expertise is an important part of the equation.
3) Baby steps. People focusing on solutions benefit from the idea that there are many possible options. Rather than trying to make massive change all at once, they opt to experiment with small actions that take them in the direction of their desired future. The benefit of this approach is that if an action isn’t successful it is possible to course correct and try something else.
Swapping out chronic gripes for a focus on solutions can be life changing. Co-workers may be attracted to the positivity, you may feel more motivated, and positive change may seem more possible than ever before. Be careful, however, that you do not adopt this approach as a panacea. Sometimes a friend or romantic partner just wants to connect with you or entertain you by complaining. When your partner says, “I just had the worst day at work!” you probably shouldn’t respond with, “Yeah? When wasn’t work a problem?” If you do, you might be looking for the solution to being single. On the other hand, a focus on what you want over what you don’t want can be a breath of fresh air. It can lead to a better work culture, a more positive attitude and—with a bit of effort and luck—success.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” because his research on happiness and other positive topics has taken him to such far-flung destinations as Greenland, Kenya, India and Israel. Robert works as a researcher, coach, and coach trainer at Postive Acorn. He lives in Portland, Oregon (USA) and rock climbs whenever possible. www.positiveacorn.com
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