What kind of complainer are you? How to be happier and more effective in the face of negative situations

6 min read
February 17, 2023

In our last article, we introduced the idea that the emotions associated with complaining may have negative effects on our well-being and sense of community.

But we also know that complaining can absolutely have a positive personal and social value.

Complaining can be an act of standing up for ourselves, others, and what’s right. It can aid our sense of empowerment when we expose where things are not working and work co-operatively to make them better for everyone. 

In this article, we will explore how you can amplify the positive effects of complaining about negative situations, and make yourself happier and more effective when you do so. 

What kind of complainer are you?

Complaining can affect our health, relationships, and even our sense of agency. Yet, most of the time, we do it unthinkingly. When something bad happens and we find ourselves on the receiving end of unfairness or unfortunate circumstances, the first thing we tend to do is turn to the closest person to complain about what has happened. 

It may seem obvious, but many psychologists and social researchers are exploring why precisely we do this and what we are really looking for when we do. Is complaining just about finding a sympathetic ear or is there something more complex going on? 

In her research, psychologist Robin Kowalksi has found there to be two main kinds of complaining: 

First, there is expressive complaining.

This is when making a complaint is mainly a way of expressing dissatisfaction. 

Whether it’s talking to our friends and family about a bad boss, delayed train, or broken boiler, or expressing frustration at the person who just cut us off on the road, we all do expressive complaining. It’s cathartic and will certainly make us feel better short term by reducing emotional tension and making us feel heard. However, the benefits are pretty limited.

Kowalksi’s research shows that the main problem with expressive complaining is that it does not bring about substantive change. We all know that calling someone who cuts you off in the car an idiot is not going to change that person – they can’t even hear you!

Second, there is instrumental complaining.

This kind of complaining is intended to bring about a very specific outcome. So, instead of complaining to our neighbour about our broken boiler, we call up the gas company, tell them about it and ensure that they send an engineer around to fix it.  

While overall the more you complain less happy you are, Kowalksi’s research has found a very important exception. Instrumental complaining is not just more effective in getting a problem resolved but actually has far more emotional benefits. 

In one study – that asked the question ‘how do happy people complain’? – she got volunteers to list their pet peeves with their significant other. She found that the people who were happiest in their relationship weren’t the ones without any complaints about their partner. Rather, they were the people who expressed them in a more instrumental way – focusing on how their negative feelings could help the other person recognise and address the issue, or how even the act of expressing such feelings was itself a sign of intimacy and trust. 

How to be an instrumental complainer 

The type of complaining that is most effective really depends on the goal. Sometimes all we need is to get something off our chest. But if your goal is to get a problem fixed, or deal with a difficult situation without making yourself feel even worse, instrumental complaining is what you should be doing. 

Being an instrumental complainer is not just going to make you more effective in bringing about a desired outcome, but will make sure you stay a happier person while doing so. 

Be intentional and strategic 

Rather than complaining about everything or not complaining at all, instrumental complaining is all about modulating your complaining based on what you have the power to change. In other words, be strategic about what you complain about, who you complain to, and bringing about a specific outcome. 

Address your complaint to the person who caused the problem that has upset you and can actually help put it right – not just a third party who will agree with whatever you say. This helps you to get something done about it and modulate your own response – not to simply vent, over-exaggerate what happened, or be unable to move forwards from it.

Make sure you have an actionable goal or resolution in mind that will help bring about specific outcome. This will help you avoid dwelling on negative feelings or catastrophizing in a way that is harmful to your mental health and well-being. 

Practice mindfulness by writing your complaint down

Be mindful of your own negative feelings, how you are expressing them, and what the intended effects of this are. This kind of self-reflection will help you turn unpleasant feelings into positive experiences by finding solutions. 

Evidence shows that writing out your complaint is a great way to practice mindfulness. The slowness of writing can help you observe your own emotions rather than letting them be triggers. 

Our system encourages written contact as we know that this helps us to articulate ourselves better and reflect on how we would like an issue to be resolved. It is, after all, far better to explain to someone how a situation made you angry and let them help you fix it than get yourself more worked up by shouting at someone down the phone.

Be measured in how you express yourself  

When negative experiences happen we can have strong emotions. And when we feel upset or angry we want to express this to someone. But it is important to remember that emotions should be a signal that tells us what we need to do about a situation, not a trigger for acting out.

Once you’ve written out how you feel, you may want to edit it to ensure that you are focusing on getting a positive result rather than just expressing your negative feelings. 

At Resolver, we see a lot of highly emotive language being used in complaints. Most of the time this is not at all effective in getting the issue heard or resolved. So if you find yourself using the word ‘disgusting’ in a context where there is no food, you may be slipping into expressive venting, rather than instrumental explanation. 

Resist falling down a wormhole of negativity by avoiding extreme or aggressive language. Ensure that the way you express yourself is helping you to put things in perspective, not making things get more out of control. As well as freeing yourself from stewing in negative feelings, you are far more likely to elicit a cooperative response from the person you are seeking a resolution from.  

But what about the listener? 

For a complaint to be instrumental, it has to be directed to the right person. There is no complaint unless there is someone listening. 

For businesses, big or small, when a customer complains they are asking for something that can make or break the ability to move forward cooperatively to find a mutually-beneficial resolution – to be listened to. In our next article, we will be thinking about this issue from the other side. We will explore how those on the receiving end of a complaint can be active listeners, avoid generating more negative feelings and get better resolutions for everyone. 

As ever, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future content feel free to get in touch with us at support@resolver.co.uk

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