Guy Winch Ph.D.

There are reasons our complaints don’t get us what we want


Try this brief exercise. List the number of complaints and gripes you voiced over the past week. It could be a complaint about a product or a service, about a politician who did something you didn’t like, a friend or colleague who annoyed you or a family member who hurt your feelings. It could even be a complaint about the weather or a movie that disappointed you. You should have at least 15 or more items on the list if you count the small stuff.

Now the important question: How many of those complaints were productive—for how many did you get the result you wanted and were satisfied with the outcome? That number is typically less than 5%. In other words, if you had twenty complaints on your list there would only be one (if that) which yielded a satisfactory outcome.

Many of the complaints on your list were probably minor but the problem is our success rate is just as abysmal when the issue is important or meaningful to us. As I discovered when doing research for my book The Squeaky Wheel, studies demonstrate that while we are incredibly prolific at voicing complaints we are remarkably ineffective at getting a satisfying result because we don’t complain effectively

Here are five common mistakes that will render any complaint useless (as far as getting a result is concerned). Avoiding them is crucial if you want to get a result.

  1. We don’t think through what we want to achieve. The purpose of complaining should be to attain a specific outcome (see mistake #5 for why). We therefore have to pause and think through what it is we want to achieve before we speak up. Figuring out what we want might be obvious when we call a customer service representative in order to remove a late fee. It is much less obvious when we’re complaining to our partner or to a colleague. Take a moment to figure out what will make you feel satisfied or better.
  2. We allow anger to distract from our message. We usually seek to complain when we are frustrated, hurt, or irritated. Feeling angry is fine if it is clear we are trying to control our emotions and communicate reasonably. But when our voice gets too loud, our tone too sharp or we embellish our message with cursing and put-downs, all the complaint recipient’s attention will go to our anger and none of it to our actual message. As a result, we are much more likely to encounter an argument or massive resistance than we are a satisfactory resolution.
  3. We include more than one complaint at a time. Hearing complaints always makes people feel defensive so we have to voice our problems in ways that do not overwhelm them. It is far more effective to voice one complaint and get a result than voice three of them and get nowhere because the other person shut down or lost their temper. Tempting as it is to air all your accumulated irritations at once, don’t—it doesn’t work.
  4. We don’t complain to the right person. Surprising as it may sound, we rarely voice our complaints to the person who can do something about them. We vent to our partner about our friends and to our friends about our partner. We refuse to call a customer service line because we anticipate doing so will take too much time and effort and instead spend even more time and effort telling a dozen friends about the incident instead. If a complaint really irritates us we owe it to ourselves and our own peace of mind to address it to the people who can do something about it.
  5. We think venting will make us feel better. We tend to do a lot of venting these days as we assume we will feel better once we do. However, we rarely get the cathartic release we seek because to experience it, the person to whom we vent must be good at validating our feelings. What we want to hear is “Wow! That sounds so frustrating! I can’t believe he did that to you! I would be livid too!” but what we often hear is “Bummer,” or “You think that’s bad? Here’s what happened to me last week!” which are neither validating nor especially cathartic. Further, venting too much without trying to get a result can make us feel powerless and victimized which isn’t good for our emotional health. Therefore, choose your venting target wisely and try to balance pure venting with efforts to complain effectively and get a result. You will feel both an emotional release and more empowered when you do.


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