How many of us avoid making a complaint because we don’t want to upset someone or make the situation worse? We don’t want to “rock the boat.”

So instead, we just suck it up and pretend nothing ever happened. And yet, somewhere in the back of our minds or in our gut, something changes. And with that subtle shift, we act just a little differently toward that person. If this happens a few times or consistently, then often we may find that resentment builds or that we are engaging less or avoid the person altogether. Hence, with our best intentions to simply avoid the perceived confrontation or to not become the one who is a “stickler,” we generate a pattern that can actually degrade our relationship.

But what if making a complaint holds the possibility of strengthening our relationships? What if making complaints could deepen our trust?

By fulfilling our promises, we build our track record and people can evaluate us as reliable. Reliability is a key aspect of trust. So, by fulfilling our promises we strengthen trust. When we hold a person to be reliable, we are more inclined to continue to engage with them. However, no one can ALWAYS fulfill their promises. Life is too messy for that. So, when someone doesn’t fulfill their promises, how do you (we) navigate? How do we take care of the relationship?

Believe it or not, making a complaint is tending to the relationship!

When we make a complaint, we are providing an opportunity. An opportunity:

  1. To clarify our standards and share when they haven’t been met.
  2. For the person to be accountable for their actions.
  3. For an apology and for there to be a rectification.
  4. To clear a misunderstanding (perhaps what you understood as a promise the other did not).

How Complaining Strengthens Relationships

In essence, when we make a complaint, we generate a space that can tend to clear up the particular situation, and hence, decrease the chances of the pattern repeating itself in the future. We are then consciously designing how we engage with each other.

There are some essential elements to making a complaint that serves the relationship. Firstly, we share the agreement or the promise. Secondly, we share that the lack of fulfillment of that promise had a negative impact or consequence. Thirdly, we make a new request. Yes! It’s that simple. Three steps.

Notice the first step, “share the agreement or the promise.” In order to have a legitimate complaint, we need to ensure we had an actual agreement.

A complaint is not the same as whining. Whining often arises out of an expectation not being met. For example, someone says, “I’m so terribly sad my partner didn’t take me out to dinner for birthday.” And if I ask into it, “Oh! Did you agree that that was what you were going to do for your birthday and he forgot?” The person replies, “No, it’s just that in my family when I was growing up, we always went out to dinner to celebrate our birthdays.”

Here we see that the person had an expectation that her partner would do something given her history, and yet there was never a conversation to agree that this would occur. We call this whining. The simple awareness of distinguishing, “am I whining?” or “do I have a complaint?”, can lead to a recognition of, “is there a missing conversation and a missing promise in the first place?”

A legitimate complaint can occur only when we have a promise. So back to the example from above, had the partner promised to take his wife out to dinner and then neglected to fulfill the promise, now we have the conditions for a true complaint.

In essence, learning how to complain and practicing making legitimate complaints when needed enables us to continuously keep our relationships fresh. So, the next time we feel a need to “suck it up” and not mention the broken, unfulfilled, or partially delivered promise, I invite you to check in and ask yourself – could making a complaint actually build trust and strengthen the relationship?

Happy complaining!

Reflections:

  • Do you avoid complaining? What’s the cost of this avoidance in your relationships?
  • When you make a complaint, do you first ensure you had an established promise and you’re not basing your complaint on an expectation?
  • Do you hold complaints as a possibility to strengthen your relationship?

 

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