Complaining is normal. We all complain about something on occasion. But when your team seems to be spending more energy complaining rather than on making progress, it's time to intervene. It's important to note that, while complaining can be obvious and overt, many times complaining is happening in informal, more covert, conversations. Still, you can recognize the inertia of complaints in the form of blaming and excuses about why things aren't going as well as expected or planned. Complaints can also manifest as a general mood of discontent.
While the need to intervene might seem obvious, a typical approach to dealing with complaints is to ignore them or attempt to shift the conversation to something more positive. The prevailing belief seems to be that the best way to deal with a complaint is to let it resolve itself or shift the focus to something positive.
But is the power of positive thinking enough to overcome the downward pull of complaining and demonstrably shift to constructive conversation?
When there's a one-off complaint or a single complainer, positive thinking can be enough to shift the focus and mood. On the other hand, when the complaint is shared among many, changing the subject or ignoring the complaint is unlikely to turn the complaint into a constructive conversation. In fact, left unattended, a persistent and widely held complaint can create an unhealthy pressure that will undoubtedly be experienced by you and your team or organization.
It's a bit like a volcano whose pressure is building. On the surface everything appears just fine, even though you can actually feel the tension bubbling underneath. By ignoring or glossing over the issues and concerns people are complaining about, you inevitably increase the pressure. And the more people fear openly expressing a complaint, especially when a group of people agree with the complaint, the more negative pressure will grow.
The key to shifting a complaint into a constructive conversation is letting off some of the steam. You do that by supporting people in fully voicing their complaint without trying to address or fix the problem.
From there, if you want to turn a complaint into a constructive conversation, here's five things you'll need to do:
1. Adopt the perspective that nothing is wrong
Consider that when there is a complaint, it does not mean something is wrong. It simply indicates that something is in the way of progress or inconsistent with how you and others want things to be. In fact, behind every complaint is a commitment to something.
2. Focus on the future vs. the past
People often worry that if they allow people to complain, the conversation will turn too negative and spiral downward, perhaps even getting out of control. The key to preventing that downward spiral is to set a future-based context for the conversation. The future could be achieving a goal, realizing a vision or making things better for the future.
3. Listen to hear, not to fix
Resist the urge to jump into problem-solving mode immediately. Not all complaints can or need to be addressed or fixed. Believe it or not, sometimes people just need to be heard. A great technique is to give someone back what you heard them say, including why it matters to them. Do not try to move on until they have affirmed you fully understand their communication.
4. Ask what they want to happen
The key to having a constructive conversation is to help people to focus on how they want things to be vs. how they should have been. After all, you cannot change the past, but you do have the power to alter the future.
5. Begin the conversation about how to adjust
Once everyone is clear about how they want things to be, change can only happen one conversation at a time. Once people feel they have been heard and have had a chance to consider how they want things to be, the conversation often naturally shifts to what can be done to make things better for the future. Is there a request they could make to initiate a change? Is there an action they can take to take a step toward creating the future the way they want it to be?
Moving from complaint to progress
Shifting a complaint to a constructive conversation requires that you give room to the all too human tendency to complain, so you can free up the human capacity to pursue the future and do something remarkable. It can take a bit of courage, but with a focus on the future you might be surprised at just how positive and energizing a conversation that begins with a complaint can become.