Tips for Effective Complaining


July 28, 2006   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

It seems that 50% of the conversations I have or emails I read contain some form of complaining. Maybe it just seems like a lot because of my kids, employees, or boss(es), etc. I don’t know.There is one thing that I’ve realized though – Everyone is complaining and most people are A) not doing it right, and B) not adding to a solution.

Let’s start simple:

What is a complaint?
It is making others aware of a perceived short-falling in a method, behavior, or result. It is the starting point of a process that concludes with a solution or decision to not act. That’s my definition at least. If you seriously need more, go to Webster.

What should we complain about?
Anything that you feel needs to be corrected, made more efficient, or something you want to forum and/or brainstorm. (please NOTE: I did not say “anything you want someone else to figure out for you!). Remember, as the complainer, you now have a role in developing the solution. If you are not willing to contribute to the solution, don’t complain.

How is it done?


  • Tactfully – Remember, the people that you are complaining to may have either had a hand in implementing the wrong solution, or they are the person irritating you. Think of your boss or spouse. You are not going to walk into your boss’ office and say, “This process absolutely sucks and the idiot that developed it needs to be shot.” Guess what, it was his idea and it was implemented the day before you started!



    • How much is enough? – I know, I know, you have 80 things making you upset and you’ve listed them all out with bullet points and everything. I have news for you, that’s worthless unless it’s part of a brainstorming session. Prioritize your items and present them as individual concerns (grouping is OK if they are very relevant). By focusing in on high priority specific items, you will get complaints resolved faster as opposed to spreading resources all over the place.Likewise, I don’t want to sit there and hear my wife list off a dozen things that I do wrong. I immediately get defensive and a war breaks out. If she wants to talk about how cheap I am fine, but not until she’s done complaining about my long work hours. I cannot take a ton of criticism all at once and neither can managers at work.


  • Presenting a complaint – What I do in most circumstances is verbally complain first. If at work, I give a few days and wait for a response before the emailing begins. Even then I email the person directly with no CCs. If the person still doesn’t respond, others will begin getting copied, generally a manager.


Knowing that you may have to escalate in this manner, it’s a good idea to be extremely specific and professional in the original email. It’s also good practice to forward the entire email thread so newcomers can see the history.

This will vary greatly based on the situation but regardless of the issue, it is wise to document the steps you took to resolve the issue – especially if a decision you made contributed to the problem to begin with. If you are documenting a 10-day negative trend with a system’s performance, just document it and skip the phone call.


  • Seek out facts -Keep your emotions out of this. If you want your wife to stop spending money, keep a log of how much garbage she bought and discuss it with her. If at work and a process has a failure rate of 8% and the goal is .5% document the exact point of failure and discuss it.


Note: If for some reason the situation is making your blood boil, do not discuss it until you’ve calmed down. Your emotions can seriously make you sound ridiculous. Also, I would not recommend coming home from work, having a few drinks, and then firing email missiles at people. In my younger years, I did that and I woke up in the morning thinking, “What the *$#@ did I just do?”


  • Provide alternatives – Nags drop bombs and run. What you want to do is provide alternative approaches to solving the problem. Clearly you don’t need to present a full solution when you complain, but be prepared to discuss a couple what-ifs (What if we did this instead?). Now you are acting as part of the solution.



  • Wording – If you start your email or complaint with, “Why do we”, or “How come this”, you are going to be met with rolling eyes and a sigh. Try using words like, “I think I figured out why…”, or “I want to discuss a different approach to…”



  • Audience – I don’t care what the situation is. At work, complain in a closed office unless you are in a group bitch-session in the conference room. Complainers that voice concerns over a cigarette in the lobby are also the first ones to complain about the office gossip because someone overheard them say Jim the VP is a moron because of XYZ.



  • Follow-Through -Be involved. Ask how you can help the corrective process along and ask if you provided enough detail in your complaint.



  • Backseat driving -Ask for updates on the status of your complaint but don’t nit pick and provide countless commentary and criticism.



  • Gratitude -This rarely happens but when your complaints are addressed and resolved to your satisfaction, why not say thank you? If you are at work, copy the guy’s boss in a ‘thanks for the effort email’.


The last thing you want to be known as is a serial-complainer. To be honest, people hate them and cringe when they call. They are also the people whose complaints get pushed down the list. Don’t be that person, be productive and add some input. You will be surprised how much your stress level decreases as you see your complaints get resolved.-Jay


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