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Helping Complainers Complain Better


It surprises me how many well-meaning, even nice people don’t know how to offer a complaint. One that actually gets heard. The Bible says “do everything without arguing or complaining”, but I don’t believe that means we aren’t to ever voice our opinions. There are times when letting someone know what you don’t agree with or how you were mistreated is warranted. If I owned a business, and you were unhappy with your service, I would want to know. As a pastor, I realize you see things I don’t see. If there are issues of concern we want to know it. If you saw a glitch in our preschool security, please come tell me quickly. But, knowing how to offer a complaint (or an opinion), even when it is good information, can make sure your input isn’t quickly dismissed.

I wrote THIS POST recently on how to offer a criticism that actually gets heard.

Then I heard from a pastor who is undergoing change in his church. Needed change. But, along the way, he’s receiving a lot of complaints. Lots. And, they aren’t being delivered in very nice ways. They hurt. There are weeks he feels he is doing nothing right even though the church has grown, new families are being added, and overall the attitude of the church has improved. Complaints, mostly the way they are presented, are shadowing out the good he is doing in his own mind. (I don’t completely understand it but for some reason the filter of civility is often lost when speaking to pastors.) I tried to coach him through this, reminding him of truths he already knew…God is in charge…change is hard…some people are mean :). But, I’d love to address his church sometime. Especially the complainers…and help them see how they could offer their opinions (even if they are merited) in a way that is more beneficial for everyone. Right now it’s not working.

But, it’s not just pastors. I was standing in a checkout line recently. Apparently this customer who frequents this store nearly everyday (his words) was unhappy. He didn’t know how to complain. Not in a way that he will ever be taken seriously. And, in my observation, he may have had a valid issue, but it was quickly dismissed and he was labeled a jerk by store staff.

I watch it in restaurants when the waitress is chewed out by the customer. It’s sad. We may have a valid complaint, but we many times don’t know how to complain.

That’s what this post is about. Complaining. In case you need to complain. (Make sure you do first. Is it rooted in selfishness or rightness?) Honestly, I think we’ve become very selfish as a society and should work to complain less, but that’s another post I guess. For this post, let us assume people are still complaining. This post is: Helping complainers complain better.

So…as much as possible…

Use the sandwich approach.

Basically, in between two pieces of praise, insert the meat of the complaint. You might even put a little sweet jelly on it if needed. (I didn’t invent the process. I’m just expanding upon it.)

Praise – What do you like about the person? What are they doing right? Focus on the positive as much as possible. People listen better to people they think actually care for them as a person.

Complaint – As much as possible, make it constructive criticism rather than a complaint. Be honest. (Don’t embellish.) Be professional. Be kind. (You can offer disappointment and still make someone think you like them.) Be clear. Be quick. Be helpful. Use “I” statements more than “You” statements. Stick to the point.

Praise – Thank them for listening. Bonus points for encouraging them in some way. Complaints can be hard to hear. Soften the blow by ending with kindness.

Of course, doing this may require you to think before you speak. It may even mean writing out your complaint first and reading over it several times. At times, after this step, you may see your feelings have changed and you don’t wish to offer a complaint. (The “sleep on it” approach is never a bad system.)

I’m not saying your complaint will always be heard doing it this way and I’m certainly not saying it means you’ll get what you want. I am saying it gives you a better shot at being heard and you’ll offer your complaint without as much injury to the party receiving it.

This is a serious post, written in a lighthearted way. Honestly, it appears to be a problem in society these days. In the end, I believe it’s a heart issue. For all of us. We’ve lost the art of how to talk to people…how to offer a serious criticism when needed. In the process, we injure people. Thumper’s mom was right…(My mom too)…”If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” Proverbs 15:1

What do you think?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • jonstallings says:

    I would also add that whenever possible be willing to be part of the solution.

    I would also suggest a book that I am currently reading called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. It is business book that offers a lot of great insight of how to keep difficult conversations moving forward.

  • Ron:

    Very true. We've lost the art of "complaining well." May your words help others to mature in this area.

    Here's an idea for a follow-up blog: we also don't know how to COMPLIMENT well. "Good job" is not enough. ENCOURAGEMENT must have some substance.

  • kmac4him

    It is warranted for people to share how they “think” but the bible also says “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves”! I also think that what the “culture” has instilled into churches today that they are likened to a “business” has diminished the respect and reverence in churches, therefore… business like complaining happens. We are the Bride of Christ, we are not a business! Trying to make an organization out of an organism makes a horizontal relating with a human condition without the power of God’s vertical grace! I think unsatisfied people complain much! If we can get to the root of the issue, it is usually that their “religiosity” is trumping their relationship with God and they have not learned what Jesus taught about putting the “sacrifice” in their salvation, about forbearance, patience and being taught and led by the Holy Spirit. One of the deeper issues of criticism stems from our lack of relationship with the Holy Spirit, WHO Jesus specifically left with His Bride as The Teacher, Comforter, Guide and Empowerment. On our own, without HIM, we are in our human condition selfish, hurtful complainers! Dig deeper and point complainers to Jesus, who is the head of a living church, an organism, not an organization. Father God is the foundation of the church life, Jesus the builder and the Holy Spirit the empowerer. Stop being led by the viewpoint of a worldly business and Belong, BE Wholly-Holy Gods, The Bride of Christ and be led by His Holy Spirit. Stopping hurtful criticism in our churches begins with each of us bowed before God, stirring up the reverence, respect and awe of HIM and dropping the horizontal business likeness and taking up the cross of Christ, in a vertical relationship with His salvation, the salvation HE put the sacrifice in.