There’s a phrase my mother was fond of repeating when I was a child: ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ Granted, this was usually in response to my petulant declarations of: ‘This tastes awful!’ (we had corned beef hash a lot), or ‘I hate going to Grandma’s’ (her house smelled of smoke).
But now I’m starting to think she might have had a point.
Recently I’ve noticed a large part of the conversations I have with those closest to me is taken up with complaining. When I catch up with friends and family, we seem to talk about what isn’t happening to us, or what we don’t like about our lives, skirting around the positive bits so we can get down to the nitty-gritty of dissecting and grumbling and griping, which is what we do best.
But I rarely feel better after bemoaning the long hours I put in at work, or how it’s difficult for my partner Andy and I to spend time with each other thanks to his hectic schedule.
‘The problem is we complain primarily to vent and get things off our chest,’ explains Guy Winch, psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining The Right Way To Get Results (Walker & Company, £10.22). ‘We tend to voice our complaints to everyone except the people who can do something about it. For example, we’re far more likely to voice a complaint about a colleague to everyone else but that person we have the problem with. This leads to a defeatist mindset when it comes to complaints. When something goes wrong, we feel doubly frustrated and upset, first because of the issue and second because we don’t believe we’ll be able to resolve it and get any satisfaction.’
Winch explains being specific and knowing what I want to achieve will help me – by making it clear to the other person what I want, it makes it easier for them to respond. He also suggests I am more selective about the complaints I choose
to voice in order to feel less victimised and more empowered. He recommends employing the ‘Complaint Sandwich’ method, wedging a negative between two positive statements to make it easier for the other person to digest.
As someone whose blood boils when I’m in a queue for longer than a minute, I can tell it’s going to be a fun two weeks.
I begin by listening to my inner thoughts to identify which are complaints and which are just noise. This way, I hope I can snuff out a negative thought before it grows. On my first day, I decide to tackle something that’s been bothering me for a while at work. A colleague has a habit of collecting any work that needs doing onto his desk whether he has time to start it or not, which means I sometimes find myself at a loose end knowing I could be working on something he has stockpiled.
I realise that this is the perfect opportunity for a complaint sandwich, so I ask if he would like any help with the work on his desk (the bread) before saying it might be better if he just takes one at a time (the filling) because then we can get it all done more quickly (more bread). Asking a specific thing seems to work, and he happily surrenders some of the jobs. My sandwich seems to have gone down a treat.
I am forced to make another, more unpleasant one when I get home from work. My 22-year-old brother Sam is staying with me and my partner, and when I spy his underwear carelessly discarded in the bathroom, I feel a rising annoyance at his lack of basic domestic hygiene. So I drop into a conversation that he left them there by mistake, before asking if he would like a hand with his laundry. I feel pleased at the way I handled it, and I get big sister brownie points, too.
While Andy and I are getting ready for bed, we talk about my challenge, and how we complain to each other about work by default, as if it’s expected. So we stay up a bit longer and tell each other what we think the other one most enjoys about their job. It’s uplifting and I feel that I’ve been given a reboot – I mustn’t complain as much as I thought I did after all.
Tonight my new mindset is tested when a meet-up with an old friend isn’t the fun reunion we’d planned. My friend Jess invited her boyfriend to dinner, and he arrived an hour late with no apology. Over the course of the evening he told Jess he would never ask her to marry him, was disrespectful about my boyfriend’s job and, for a grand finale, announced his portion of the bill was extortionate. He was so rude, yet Jess didn’t take him up on it, when it was clear everyone at the table was uncomfortable. It also showed me how unpleasant it is to be around a serial complainer. On the way home, I’d usually have launched into a tirade about his crassness to Andy and never mentioned it to Jess. But my newly reflective state left me concerned that my friend isn’t being treated very well in her relationship. I decide to speak to her about it the next time we’re on our own and see if she opens up.
My first week is almost up and I’m genuinely feeling more positive about work and home life. It could be a combination of having a relatively stress-free week and realising that I made it a stress-free week by choosing to let little things go. As my younger brother has become a permanent fixture on our sofa – watching endless episodes of Breaking Bad (not complaining, just stating a fact) – I suggest we leave the house and do something fun. We have a lovely day walking around and catching up properly for what feels like the first time in years. He opens up about struggling to find a job and moving back in with our parents after finishing university. These seem like genuine complaints to me, and as I am now a bit of an expert, I attempt to help him convert his venting into solutions. We come up with ideas for what he can do in the meantime to work towards his goal, and he even emails a few companies for work experience the same day.
Today I’m meeting one of my best friends, Rachel, and I wonder if the conversation is going to flow as smoothly as it usually does, or if I’m going to feel like an overly positive TV presenter interviewing her over a peppermint tea. We usually have a good old grumble, so I hope she doesn’t think I’ve had a personality transplant since she saw me last. She regales me with a couple of funny stories about her fiancé, but I recognise them as embroidered complaints. I think a lot of it is about self-deprecation – who wants to sit there and listen to someone go on about how perfect their life is? At the risk of appearing smug, I keep it positive and upbeat and say everything’s great. I feel a pang every time I want to match or relate to one of her work/family/relationship quips, but instead I drive the conversation into more positive waters each time, or turn it to books, films or theatre. At the end of our time together, I feel much better for it – and our conversation is even slightly more high-brow than usual!
It’s my last day of the task, but I’m not out of the woods yet. Andy and I are due to meet friends for dinner, and as we’re about to leave, we have a row about him wanting to watch the end of the football. I decide this is fine because I’m arguing with him, about him. We clear the air but it’s hard to find a positive, and I can’t help but feel irritated that I’ve clipped my foot at the final hurdle.
But no matter how calm I am determined to be, I still feel extremely frustrated that I am the one trying to soothe the situation when he is being unreasonable. I must have thought that applying these steps to how I deal with conflict would make me immune to flare-ups of white-hot, unexpected annoyance, and that any situation can be mastered if you set your mind to it – but it’s not always as easy as that.
It’s a reminder that no matter how focused our minds are, things can’t always go our way, and it’s really how we deal with these individual experiences that will eventually have an effect on the whole. I know I can’t eliminate moments of anger and exasperation from my life altogether, so I might as well embrace them.
By allowing myself to be annoyed and accepting it, I can then release it – along with any feelings of guilt that I have about becoming annoyed in the first place. And as we walk out of our house, I feel it leave me as suddenly as it arrived, and Andy must too, for he apologises and we move on – which, I realise, is what this is all about anyway.
My two weeks of thinking before I complain has really made me re-examine a few things. Mainly, it’s made me realise the importance of trying to nip things in the bud before they grow into larger, more deep-set feelings. It was surprisingly easy once I got the hang of being more direct and less vague, and I feel like I’ve unblocked the communication channels in my life. My partner has really responded at home, and we’ve become friendlier and more affectionate towards one another because, without sounding like Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull, I’ve learnt to make it clear what I want and expect. Now when I’m about to complain, I think of at least one enthusiastic or encouraging point to counter it. And now I know how to complain properly, I feel more empowered and in control of my life.
So here’s a new phrase for you – if you can’t say anything nice, put a positive spin on it and only say it to a person who can cause a change. Catchy, right?
Photograph: Pete Thompson/GalleryStock
Read Unhappy at work? Here’s your solution by Obi James on LifeLabs