COACHING: What can I learn by inquiring differently?
Case Study: How do I deal with complaining?
What’s the first thought you have when you hear someone complain?
“They should be grateful for what they have.”
“How can they complain when they have so much or more than me?”
“We’ve done so much for them, and now they’re complaining?”
Complaining seems like an ever-present reality. Like with any limiting pattern of thinking we feel stuck in, if we inquire more deeply we’re bound to find some new angle on it. This is especially true of complaining. It takes discipline and hesitation to stay curious when someone is complaining. This is true whether we hear others complaining or we’re complaining ourselves. It’s easier to see the ways others get stuck in limiting patterns. It requires discipline for us to use that as a mirror for the ways we also get stuck in limiting patterns.
When somebody complains, we usually assume that the complainer is either entitled, wronged, lazy. We figure they just need to vent or get it off their chest, that there may be no way of fixing it so we should just let them winge on and get it out of their system.
The problem with this?
Complaining doesn’t get it out of their system, this kind of venting rarely ventilates the system.
Complaining to others actually creates a shared system with the listener, and keeps the negative energy circulating inside of it.
Have you considered that complainers may actually just be disappointed? People complain because something that matters to them isn’t going as they expected. Rather than claim that expectation, and how much it matters to them, they complain about it.
Developmental psychologists Kegan and Lahey (2001) explain that behind every complaint, is a commitment. Inquire into what’s behind the complaint, and we’ll most likely find a commitment to something that matters to us. We may not even realize how committed we are to a certain expectation, until it goes unfulfilled, gets disappointed, or is offended in some way. If you hear yourself or others complaining, congratulations, you just found a committed person!
Now to find out what that commitment is…
PRACTICE: What can I try?
Exercise: Finding the Commitment
Most developmental learning begins with our ability to name what needs to change in someone else’s thinking, and then the willingness to search for that same change within ourselves. Let’s start with hearing others complain, and then move toward finding the commitments behind our own complaints.
In one of my workshops in an organization recently, someone complained, “I got a calendar invite to that meeting on Monday, I have no idea why I’m invited. I go to the meeting and sit there wondering, ‘Why am I in this meeting? What are we trying to accomplish? Do they really need my input on this?’ Do they think I have nothing else to do?”
The complainer is unsure why they were invited to a meeting, but they attend anyway, and remain in the dark as to the purpose and contribution that’s expected from them. They leave the meeting unresolved and retaining negative feelings about how it was handled. They come to you to complain, how can you help them uncover what’s behind their complaint?
Let’s craft a practice question:
Move from, “Why are they complaining?” toward, “How are they being disappointed?”
Clues: Look for “shoulds”, “oughts”, and other assumption language to find out if the complainer holds expectations that they aren’t necessarily aware of. You can help them get out of this cycle of assumptions by asking questions like,
Once another layer of commitments, expectations, assumptions of shared understandings is uncovered, the complainer has the opportunity to:
Take responsibility for the ways they keep cycles of frustration and assumptions closed by complaining rather than claiming their own commitments and expectations
Complaining is different than whining: saying the office is too cold, or the food is too spicy isn’t an invitation to claim a commitment to something that matters to you beyond your own comfort or taste. It isn’t an invitation to claim a commitment to something that matters to you. Though if it’s used as an indirect request, then it’s worth it to go seeking there as well. If your office mate exclaims, “It’s too cold in here!” You might wonder whether they expect you do something to change things for them based on their outloud complaint.
Communication breaks down in scenarios where a commitment goes unclaimed, and offense assumed, especially if you were to respond with a snarky, “how is that my problem?” There is, of course, a more direct form of claiming a commitment and using it to frame a clear request. It might sound something like this, “I’m cold, and I think I’ll concentrate better if I’m warmer. Would you be willing to turn down the air conditioning, please?”
When your people complain: What are they committed to? How are they feeling disappointed?
When your customer complaints: What was their expectation? How was their expectation disappointed?
When you complain: What expectations do you discover? What matters more to you than you realized?
When you have a culture of complaint: Do people feel empowered to set and share expectations? Is there a forum for them to claim their commitments?
The following issue of Free Coaching will be about: Gratitude is overrated, offer feedback for Thanksgiving
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