What’s In a Complaint?

Woman on phone looking frustratedLanguage is very important. What we say is a reflection of what we think, and how we feel. I’m a firm believer that the language we use also has the potential to alter what we think and how we feel.

I point this out to my clients quite frequently. For example, if someone has a limiting belief such as, “I could never do something like that!” Well, why ever not? Another very common use of language that can negatively affect us is: “I have to do this thing I don’t want to do!” Well, do you, really?

I’ve become fairly good at noticing my own language in these situations; the wonderful thing about coaching others is you notice where you do and don’t walk the walk. But when a friend posted recently on Facebook about a book she’s reading–called “A Complaint-Free World”–and started a group about it, I knew I had to join.

Can I really assess myself?

After a day or so, my friend asked the group how everyone was doing. I thought back on my day, from the afternoon through the next morning; everything had gone really well. I taught a fun class, I was productive in my business, I solved a technical issue, and then I was surprised that my usual instructor was out sick, and I had the pleasure of taking a class from an instructor who I adored over 10 years ago. Had I complained? I thought it wasn’t very likely. Still, I wasn’t sure. I thought about one of my friends recently talking about coaching executives and doing 360 degree assessments, and figured I needed an opinion outside my own head.

I asked my partner–who, when I was very ill noted I complained a lot–whether I had in fact complained. “I’m not sure I can really tell!” I said. He agreed that no, I did not in fact complain. Whew. I knew he would honestly tell me, and so at least for the time being I had accurately assessed myself. Self-awareness is an important skill to continue to develop, and sometimes a sanity check is helpful while one is training new muscles.

The “implied” complaint

Now some of you know that on the east coast we recently had a “heat wave” (I put that in quotes because I did live in Austin for 3 1/2 years, so it’s all relative). Outdoors it was challenging for me to breathe, but any time I was in an air-conditioned space (including our apartment), I’m cold. The blowing air gives me goose-bumps, and I’m always with a hoodie or a jacket, or socks on, inside.  We’ve been flipping back and forth between trying to keep it cool and getting fresh air from outside when it’s cooler, but that was really difficult for about a week. One of those times, when I flipped on the A/C again, I caught myself thinking, “Now I’m going to be cold.”

Was that a complaint? No, surely it was simply a statement of fact. There is not a single time I can recall I am not cold when the A/C is on. (Most of my friends can attest to this too.) But I could certainly feel that this thought could be a complaint. In fact, saying, “now I’m going to be cold” has often had an implied “and I hate that I always have to freeze for everyone else to be comfortable” or “it’s so annoying” appended to it. This time it didn’t, and I knew that in that moment, when life was good, my thought was simply a statement of fact, helping me to remember to get my hoodie right away. I also knew that it could certainly be a complaint, either explicitly said or implicitly thought, and that I’d need to assess what I can only describe as the internal tone of the thought, or how the thought made me feel. For example, if thinking “now I”m going to be cold” made me feel angry, then it probably was an implied complaint. If it made me get my jacket with no emotion whatsoever, it was probably a neutral observation.

What do you think?

  • How confident are you in assessing yourself in the area of complaining?
  • Would you join a group like this? Why or why not?
  • Do you have any “implied” complaints?
  • Do you think there are other “hidden” language constructs we’re not aware of as obvious complaints?


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