Thursday, August 12, 2010

What are you complaining about?

Complaining is a behaviour we humans have almost perfected. There is no enigma to understand why we complain a lot. We even have established formal mechanisms to process and deal with complaints: the legal system, complaints department, the Ombudsman, conflict resolution, etc. We confess our most personal complaints to shrinks, priests, therapists, counsellors, close friends, among others, hoping they can give us that elusive peace of mind we seek.

There is also a group called the Complaint-Free World movement that Oprah Winfrey supports. Its ultimate goal is not to complain at all. According to Rev. Will Bowen of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City who founded the movement, you accomplish this objective by wearing a bracelet, a purple wristband issued to members as a reminder of their pledge. Once you catch yourself complaining, you have to switch the bracelet to your other wrist, and start counting the days from scratch. The whole point is to keep the bracelet on the same wrist for 21 consecutive days, which is the average time it takes to form a habit.

Members of Bowen’s flock are asked to take a pledge to swear off complaining, criticizing, gossiping or using sarcasm for 21 days. Now, the idea has begun to spread far beyond middle America.

Bowen said: “We all complain. It’s just human nature. The one thing we can all agree on is there’s too much complaining!”

Critics of the “Complaint-Free World” method have complained, however, that it could cause more harm than good. Why would we suppress our feelings or bottle up our emotions? If it is human nature to complain, we should allow ourselves to express dissatisfaction when things are not what they ought to be. Preventing or discouraging one to vent may actually cause more stress than relaxation. Otherwise, the Bowen method becomes just another anger management tool.

As far as social issues are concerned, for example, how could we enact social change without first finding fault with the present situation? Bowen’s method is critical of criticism, which is complaining with a sharp edge.

In contrast, Julian Baggini in his book, Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests, talks about the positive effects of our modern grievance culture. Baggini defines complaint as “directed expression of a refusal or inability to accept that things are not as they ought to be.”

The act of complaining, according to Baggini, is “not what is fundamental to complaint: it is a symptom, not the disease itself. Just as the severity of a medical complaint should be measured not by how loudly it draws attention to itself but by the extent to which the body is really damaged, so we should not mistake the loudness of a complaint for its seriousness.”

Oftentimes, we tend to focus on the person making the complaint, to deride the critic but miss the substance or gist of the criticism. We dislike someone for stirring the pot, and portray the critic as a rabble-rouser. For instance, to some people the word “activist” conjures up images of Molotov cocktail-throwing, mayhem on the street and rioting. Yet, they ignore excessive police violence or violation of the right to free speech. Nothing is wrong to contain or moderate complaining, but it is foolhardy to dismiss the essence of a sincere gripe just because it is made loudly.

Two Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, have come out with a name for complaining: “BMW mode” – short for “bitching, moaning and whining.” After 15 years of studying how people interact in more than 650 organizations, they have found out that complaints can actually be the seeds for corporate and individual transformation.

In their book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Kegan and Lahey discuss how to stop the whining and turn the culture of complaint into an agenda for change.

To understand complaints, we need to first deconstruct them, according to the Harvard researchers. “Behind every complaint is an idea or a belief or a value that a person is committed to. Otherwise, why be upset?” Lahey said.

According to Kegan, as soon as people stop thinking of themselves as complainers, and start thinking of themselves as people who are committed to something, then they set the stage for doing something about their problem. “That happens not by dismissing the complaint but by finding the commitment behind it,” Kegan stressed.

But there are times, the two Harvard researchers observed, that we tend to clam up and keep our complaints to ourselves. We’re not telling our boss, for instance, certain things because we want to keep the boss’s respect or we’re afraid we’ll be seen as a troublemaker. In this situation, they advise us that we need to re-examine our commitments and identify our fears.

Complaining is also a way to discover the truth, although oftentimes we tend to hold our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us as “the truth.” Kegan and Lahey urge us to question our assumptions, of what we think will happen, so we can have all the options available to us. We need to let go of our assumptions, not simply to modify them, if they are competing with our commitments or goals.

Indeed, we have plenty to complain about. Corruption in government, tyrannical bosses, incompetent colleagues, pushy clients, annoying friends or pesky bloggers. Even the weather becomes the object of our scorn: either it is too hot or too cold, or so muggy or too humid.

So we complain about the state of our nation because we perceive our president as weak. Or that he represents only the interests of the rich and those of big business. We elected him our leader because we wanted to have change, yet he is fast becoming exactly a mirror image of his predecessor.

It’s natural to complain of things if they are not what ought to be. Suppressing them runs counter to our nature. When things go wrong, do we always have to run to the hills?

To transform the culture of complaint into a meaningful agenda for change, we must take responsibility by turning the language of complaint to a language of commitment, as Kegan and Lahey suggest in their book. That would be the most effective way to stop the whining, and to start getting stuff done.

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