Managers, at all levels, often tell me how little patience they have when they hear complaints from the people they supervise, how their disempowered nature drags them down. Those who get pegged as repeat complainers are often avoided by their coworkers.
Nowadays, I work with people on both ends of the dynamic of complaining – how to hear someone else’s apparent complaint as well as what to do when they themselves want to discuss something they are truly unhappy about.
The Dilemma of Expressing Feelings
Far too many of us have been trained to believe that if someone is upset, that’s a problem to be solved, and that someone is at fault (possibly the person who is upset). The solution, within this version of human life, is to punish the offending party, or, at least, for that person to learn about the error of their ways and fix them. We somehow hold on to some illusion, rarely articulated, that if everyone did everything right, no one would ever be upset.
This makes feelings both difficult to hear and difficult to express. For example, in a recent workshop, we engaged in a role-play where one participant took the role of a teenager and several participants attempted to express something as the parent. At one point, one of the participants, while being the parent, expressed sadness to the teenager about how he had previously talked to him about the conflict they were having with each other. The teenager reacted to that by feeling guilty, as if she was made responsible for the parent’s sadness.
The paradox surrounding feelings is that on the one hand they contain invaluable information, because they point to something of great importance to us. On the other hand, expressing them without metabolizing them rarely gets us the results we want because the emotional charge, and the habit of hearing feelings as attack, are so deeply ingrained. The way forward and out of this difficulty is to do the work of digesting the feelings sufficiently before expressing ourselves. This often takes us to a deeper layer that is both more authentic and less challenging for others.
Derek, for example, found out, through further exploration, that one important message he had to deliver to this group was that it was really important to him that they all took a step back from the specifics of the project and focused, instead, on getting on the same page about why it was a priority. It was through listening to his feelings that he realized that unless everyone’s perspective and needs were on the table clearly, his as well as those of the group he was collaborating with, the project would fail. His own discomfort about not being heard then emerged as a key to understanding the deeper issues surrounding the collaboration challenges, namely that a fundamental conflict existed between the imperative for growth that came from above and drove the project, and the ferocious resistance to it from people who had a significant concern that growing would impair both the quality of service they provided as well as their own capacity to do their work.
Finding the Gem in Others’ Complaints
Derek didn’t find this path forward on his own, although it was entirely his. I talked with him and supported him in discovering it. This is something I often do when I facilitate – both in meetings and in workshops.
We can all learn to engage with those who come to us to complain, and to support them more effectively. Doing it requires taking a lot more initiative when we hear others than we usually do. What I did with Derek is something that can be practiced and mastered by anyone in a position of leadership. Instead of waiting for an employee to “become empowered” a manager can learn to hear through the “complaint” – either by imagining what it could be, or by guiding the employee to discover it, the way I did with Derek. Parents can also do it with their children, and all of us with our friends.
It’s not always easy. At a recent meeting with middle managers it took me almost 45 minutes to get anywhere when they expressed dissatisfaction with upper management. Now I can see, in retrospect, that I was caught up in some protection of what I was trying to do with them instead of simply being with them where they were. They kept not feeling heard as a result. This is a deep lesson for me – that before I can support people in finding their power and a way forward, I need to find a way to be with them where they are, embrace their experience, and find that tenderness and compassion. What finally helped was shifting focus to the practicality of how they could express themselves to top management. When I modeled to them what they could say, they immediately saw the power of expressing their intention of offering their concerns as a form of support for the leader in question – a way of increasing the chances that her initiative would succeed – rather than complaint or criticism about what she was doing. However difficult it may be to find it, uncovering what we truly want and relating it, productively, to what others want, breaks the either/or frame in which so many of us are caught so much of the time, and frees up enormous amounts of energy to move forward together.
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