Productive complaining makes improvements; bad complaining feeds the ego and withers the brain.
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Reading Time: 1.5 minutes
My partner came home from a week-long retreat with a tidbit of information that astonished me:
75-80% of conversation is complaining.
If it’s all the productive kind, that means most conversations are focused on solving problems, which is…not at all what’s happening. At least not to me.
Most of the time I’m not trying to solve a problem, I’m kvetching. And here’s the part that made me cringe: That kind of complaining is all about the ego. I complain to prove that I know more than the person I’m complaining about. That’s so true it makes me cringe. (Not that I’m complaining about being caught out.) Even worse, bad complaining wears deep, unproductive grooves in the brain. If you’re a manager or executive, it’s probably wearing deep grooves in your patience too.
We’ve been laboring under the crazy idea that complaining – “venting” – is somehow good for us, or at least an necessary evil. But unproductive complaining just leads to more unproductive complaining, and that’s not good for anybody.
3 Ways to Get Bad Complaining Out of Your Meetings
Anthropologist Angeles Arrien tells the story of a Native American elder appearing before Congress to discuss a problem they’d come across. After presenting the problem, the elder said “I must apologize. It is our custom to propose 10 possible solutions when we point out a problem. I regret that we were only able to think of 3.”
The goal is to convert bad complaining to the good, problem-solving kind, not to shut people down.
“If you oppose, you must propose” is a meeting ground rule that eliminates negativity without shutting down conversation about what needs to improve. You’ll need everyone’s help to enforce it. It’s a big relief to give a group the freedom to watch its own negativity.
When someone is going on and on (and on and on and on) about why your idea is the worst idea they have ever heard and probably the worst idea since the dawn of time and really you must be mad to think anyone would like it, why not stop them and ask them what they suggest. I do this in meetings I facilitate when the group can’t seem to stop criticizing ideas. I do it in 1-on-1 conversations too.
Go first. When you catch yourself complaining, give people around you permission to ask you for 3 possible solutions, then let them press you for action steps.
Bonus Strategy #4
This is not for the fainthearted, but it will shift you from bad complaining to problem-solving instantly. Recruit someone to stop you when you are complaining or ranting by asking “What are you anxious about?” Asking this question is like giving your ego a little hug.