The Invasive Power of Complaining and What to Do About It

While listening to colleagues at a recent business conference, I was actually holding a robust internal conversation of fault-finding and grumbling. I’m embarrassed to admit that afterwards, I took a colleague aside and repeated my complaints to her! She looked very uncomfortable and quickly changed the subject.

After this experience, I wanted to understand why complaining thoughts possess us, what they cost us, and how to consciously stop and shift cycles of complaints.

Why do we settle into a routine of complaining? Why this automatic reaction to Mondays, traffic, politics, certain people, shoddy work, the weather? I hate listening to other people rehash grievances and here I was doing the same thing.  

Complaining can occupy the mind, disrupting clear thinking about all that is working. Like summer tourists invading the beach, complaints push away our calm enjoyment. Research shows that chronic fault-finding narrows our vision of what is possible, shortens our attention span, depletes vitality, consumes brain power, and diminishes real engagement. The costs are high: problems don’t get solved, trust diminishes, and relationships fall apart as the litany of criticism generates unease and dissonance.

But aren’t there benefits to complaining? After all, complaints can point out real problems. We feel better when we vent. Failure to confide in others about disturbing events can increase stress and long-term health problems. And, in business, customer complaints can indicate a real problem in a consumer product or service.

It’s not venting or complaints per se that are the issue; it’s turning them into our default response that is so corrosive. The science on brain plasticity indicates that as habitual complaining rewires the circuitry in our brains, negativity begins to feel familiar, almost comforting. Slipping into a downward spiral, we habitually complain whether walking down the street or into a meeting. Over time, we lose confidence in ourselves and others. How do we stop?

Shifting the Cycles of Complaint

Resting inside a complaint is a commitment. Within our grumbling lies a keen dedication to something. Complaints about shoddy work are really a commitment to quality. Complaints about long meetings hide a desire to efficiently collaborate on time-sensitive issues. Instead of focusing on what you don’t want, as I did at the conference, bring what you do want—your commitment—to the foreground.

Commitments are a stand FOR something. They incite forward momentum. Our attention shifts to what is possible, what we can do, and what we will do. Just as there are costs to complaining, the benefits to living from commitments include an expanded vision of possibilities and the courage to take on big challenges. A focus on what works and what is possible rewires our brain circuitry toward inventive solutions, caring relationships, clearer communication, and feelings of gratitude.

How can we make this shift? After successfully guiding dozens of clients, I’m ready to share what worked for me.

Ask these questions to initiate your own shift from complaints to commitments:

  1. What is the future you want? What do you expect? What are you committed to?

  2. Objectively look at your complaint. Right now, what is the situation? What is different from what you expect? What is the impact on you and others?

  3. Listen. What is the conversation in your head? Make a list of your complaints. What is hidden inside your griping, “That’s not going to work! That’s a stupid idea!”

  4. Design. Envision a new conversation that matches your commitment. This might be with people at work or in your head. Write it out. Reinforce with practice. The old conversation was a habit. Now you are developing a new habit. “I am dedicated to getting this project completed in three months. Let’s come back to the next meeting ready to generate a boat load of solutions.”

  5. Move into action. When will you have this conversation with yourself? In the car? Looking in the mirror? Before the meeting? What new conversation can you initiate the next time you or your co-worker, partner or boss complains? Can you make it a group effort where everyone helps each other?

Choosing our internal conversation is a lever in our lives and organizations. Moment by moment we can talk to ourselves in ways that keep us stuck – There is nothing we can do about it. Or, we can choose to live inside positive conversations that empower us and those around us – We can make this better.

Like me, you may find that when you change conversations of complaint to conversations of commitment, breakthroughs follow: the doors of the mind open to a wider, wiser perspective that includes more emotional intelligence, insight, common sense, and better judgment. We can begin to speak and lead in a way that expresses our choice to create a better future–powerfully, directly, with clear purpose and profound care.


Resources and Links

If you want to learn more - I first learned about the power of positivity from world renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina. This research shows that experiencing positive emotions broadens our minds and builds our resourcefulness in ways that help us become more resilient to adversity and achieve what we once could only imagine. Check out her book Positivity for the lab-tested tools necessary to create a healthier, more vibrant, and flourishing life.

To understand more about the personal benefits of a strongly held commitment, take a look at my blog from May of this year.

This is an excellent HBR article from Peter Bregman, The Next Time You Want to Complain at Work, Do This Instead.

And, here’s a great article by Jessica Stillman in Inc. magazine, Complaining is Terrible for you According to Science.