The art of complaining: Eight tips to finesse it and actually make things happen

Complaining is often looked at as a negative, but if you perfect it great things can happen.
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Making a fuss. Whining. Grumbling. Complaining is often looked at as a negative, but if you learn how to finesse the art, great things can happen.

Complaining has a really bad reputation. Articles and gurus insist that too much complaining will “lower your vibration” and stop you achieving your dream, having friends and living the life you want.

They suggest that you cut out negativity from your life, especially people who complain. But humans love to complain.

I know this because I get paid to sit with people while they vent, complain and process every week. Complaining does serve a real purpose in our lives, and once we discover how to effectively integrate it, great things can happen.

Dr Robin Kowalski, a prominent researcher of complaining behaviour, found those who complain with the hopes of achieving a certain result tend to be happier.

Complaining helps us feel better, influences how people see us, creates social bonds, allows us to gather information, encourages empathy, and helps create real change. It plays a very important role in our lives and is a skill that, when used correctly, can be extremely effective.

The goal is not to eliminate complaining from your life, but make it more effective and adaptive. When we complain effectively, we can achieve the closeness, support and change we all crave.

Keep reading for eight of the best ways to finesse the art of complaining.

Is it worth complaining about?

I like to divide complaints into categories: “high-level” and “low-level” complaints. High-level complaints are those big-ticket items that have a large impact. Low-level complaints are typically daily annoyances or frustrations.

You want to pay attention to your high-level complaints. These are the types of admissions that really mean something and are usually a bid for connection.

The goal is not to eliminate complaining from your life, but make it more effective and adaptive.

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Choose the right audience

Work out who can help you. Is there anyone who’d understand or relate? Don’t always complain to the same people. Pick those who can validate you or help with your goal.

We each have a unique relationship with complaining, shaped by our personality, gender, cultural norms and what we were exposed to.

Each person has their own threshold for complaining. You may notice you can empathise or listen to someone up to a certain point, but when you’re done, you’re done.

Write it down

Research has found that infrequent complainers who were asked to write about their dissatisfaction with a problem felt better when they were able to write about their complaints compared to writing about innocuous events from the previous day.

Attempting to suppress emotions usually leads people to ruminate or make the problem even bigger than it is, illustrating how valuable this sharing and acknowledging of complaints can be.

Complainers who were asked to write about their dissatisfaction with a problem often felt better.

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Connect with others

Complaining alerts others that we’re in need and lets them know how they can support us. It’s our way of saying, “Hey! Look at me! I really need some help here.”

If you never complained or shared what was bothering you, it would be impossible for people to know you needed help. This type of complaining is one of the most important types because it is the way we can access empathy for others.

Force for change

One of the most important reasons we complain is to hold people accountable. On a small scale, you might do this when a restaurant gets your order wrong, or on a larger scale, when we hold our government accountable for unmet promises.

This type of sharing is often dismissed as “negativity”. We have to remember that most major social justice movements in history began with a complaint. Someone noticed that something wasn’t right,and had the courage to speak out about that injustice. We need this type of complaining if there’s going to be real change in the world.

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Create an impression

We also complain to influence how other people feel about us. By complaining about something “bad”, we’re demonstrating authority, establishing our status, and aligning ourselves with what is “good”.

This type of complaining is used to identify yourself as a certain type of person and to create belonging within a group. Look out for this in your conversations. I bet you’ll see it often.

Positive connections

It’s common that people complain about positive events like weddings or pregnancy by discussing the stress or negatives. It makes sense: we want to share about this exciting milestone but feel it will be seen as boastful or arrogant.

By sharing, “Gosh, this wedding is costing so much. I can’t believe the price of the food!” we’re giving ourselves the opportunity to discuss something that’s important and create social bonds around the topic.

It’s common that people complain about positive events like weddings.

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Team building

If you complain about your boss around co-workers, you might be hoping to assess how they feel. You’re sharing a complaint as a way to build alliances.

This allows you to assess what complaints you can express that will be shared by the group. This may help form connections and acceptance by people who share our complaints.

This is an edited extract from Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman, Hachette Australia. Buy the book here.

Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman

(Credit: (Image: Hachette Australia))

Are you stuck in a complaint loop?

This typically happens when there is no available solution, we don’t feel heard or supported, or we’re having trouble accepting our reality. Getting stuck in a complaint cycle doesn’t help and it isn’t effective. If you feel stuck, your commentary is becoming repetitive, people are getting annoyed, and complaining doesn’t lead to any relief or connection, there are a few tools you can use.

Try looking for the grey in the situation. Complaint loops usually feel very black-and-white and will include words like always, never, can’t, won’t etc. Look for loopholes. Is there any hope or possibility here?

Using the word ‘and’ can be an effective way to manoeuvre your way out of a complaint cycle. So you might say something like, “My mum never listens to me and my spouse does,” or “My mum never listens to me and I have friends who do.” It allows you to make space for the good, the bad, and the in-between.

Three tips for effective complaining

If you are able to identify these three things, your complaining is much more likely to feel useful and effective and lead to a better outcome:

  1. Use facts and logic.

  2. Know your ideal outcome.

  3. Understand who has the ability to make it happen.

You can read this story and many others in the November issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.

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