It's possible that you came here today - thinking you knew what I was going to talk about. It's possible that if and when you heard about my absence a couple of weeks ago, you heard about the speech that I'd planned for that day - about how I'd managed to avoid reading the epic science fiction tome: Dune for twenty-five years. It's possible that you came here today specifically because you wanted to hear about Dune - maybe you're a fan, maybe you're not - but mainly you wanted to hear about why, I have in some cases, literally run away from the book.
I'm so sorry. I had a last minute change of heart, and I'm not talking about Dune today. Maybe later. But not today.
No, today I'm talking about something that has been more prevalent in my life lately than dandelions in the yard in the summer. It's been springing up all over the place: in my house, on Facebook, in emails, in the grocery store - surely somewhere on I-5. It's complaining. And if you ask me, which you haven't - but I'm going to pretend you did - it's not being done very well. There's whining. There's vague innuendo. There's wheedling. There's even been a bit of bait and switch. And it's not really accomplishing anything.
So imagine my surprise when I was flipping through a back issue of the Toastmaster magazine and discovered an article entitled "How to Complain Effectively." I like to strive for effectiveness in all areas of my life (and sometime in the lives of others), so let's give complaining our best effort. And personally, I really would like an answer to the question: what do you want from me?
According to the author, "there is an appropriate time and place to express unhappiness with a situation, just as there is a right and wrong way to do it." Conflict management and communication is a great skill to develop - it's actually part of what we work on here in Toastmasters (even if we don't realize it), and those tools and skills can be used by us - or anyone really - to effectively complain to someone - whether it's to a customer service representative, someone at work, or someone in our personal life.
Here are three things to think about and practice to make your complaining more effective.
Lesson One: Be Clear and Specific
What exactly is your complaint (this is the question otherwise known as "what is your problem?")? Did you miss a critical meeting because an airline delayed your flight? Did the dishwasher not get turned on - even though you left the little magnet indicator turned to "dirty?" Did your phone call not get returned in a timely manner? Here's an important point to remember with lesson number one: if you're complaining, you're probably already irritated and frustrated. Stay focused. Stay on point. Dragging in additional items, past history, or other things you're upset about will only cloud the issue and make your complaint ineffective.
Lesson Two: Present your Complaint in a Clear and Logical Format
For all intents and purposes, giving a good complaint is like giving a good speech. You have to grab their attention right from the get-go. For example, if you've received poor service at a restaurant that you eat at frequently, beginning your complaint with, "Oh my gosh, you suck! I can't believe you forgot the freaking' silverware - and I had to ask four times - and you didn't even bother to refill my water. Ever. At all. The entire night! Never mind the fact that you brought me the lamb when clearly, I ordered the Osso Bucco - are you stupid? I'm never coming back here again!" [big pause] is going to be far less effective than if you open by stating how often you frequent the restaurant; how pleased you've been with the service in the past, and how disappointing it is that tonight's service wasn't up to the usual standards of excellence. The introduction of your complaint should lead into the crux of your unhappiness (again - focused and specific!) and then close with what outcome you'd like to see. At the restaurant - do you want your money back? Do you want a credit for another meal? Don't be afraid to ask for what you want. Even if the answer is no, you won't have lost anything for trying.
Lesson Three: Whatever Your Gripe, Keep Requests Reasonable and Appropriate
Looking to get a raise? You're more likely to get it if it's within your job position's salary range. Sorry - we can't all have Bill Gates' take home pay. Want to spend more time with your friends? Take a chance and offer to do something you know they enjoy - even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. Need some help around the house? Ask for one or two things that your spouse can do on a regular basis that would help instead of making them feel like you want to throw the entire weight of all the chores in the house on their shoulders. And as with lessons one and two - stay focused and specific.
In addition to these lessons and more (here's your teaser to go read the article - it's in the May issue!), the author offers more tips to help us be more effective in presenting our complaints.
Think ahead about objections - and while you're thinking about them, develop a good counter response or two. It shows that you've thought about the issue, that you care about it, and that you're not just reacting to a situation. Give plenty of time for discussion - and don’t forget to let the other person speak.
Watch you tone. Okay, I'll admit it. I can fall down really easily on this one. Sarcasm - that's something I speak fluently, and one language you don't want to be bringing to the table when you're complaining. Again, as with a good speech, be aware of everything: body language, gestures, vocal variety. Stay focused on the issue at hand and how to solve it effectively.
Choose your battles. Wait until you have a legitimate complaint to do any actual complaining. This is hard. I know. It takes bit of introspection and willingness to not get tetchy about every detail. It requires you to give the benefit of the doubt - a lot. And to have a lot of grace - both for yourself and for those around you.
In the end, effective complaining is really just another form of problem solving, another form of communication, and another aspect to relationships. We have so many skills in Toastmasters that we can draw on to help make complaining more effective: be specific, be clear and logical in your presentation, and keep your requests reasonable. Above all else, I would ask you to remember the quote from the final Harry Potter that I shared in table topics last week:
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.
Use your words wisely and with great care. Let the magic work for you.