A client of mine once shared his marriage travails with me:
When I change the TV Serial channel to some other channel, my wife fights with me. Having complaints about each other in a relationship is normal. The problem arises when you have the same complaint over and over again for your partner. A lingering complaint that strongly persists even after repeated voicing out, so much so that you stop focusing on the complaint itself and turn on the doer. This is criticism!
The difference between criticism and complaint is that while in a complaint, you focus on the problem; in criticism, you target the person’s character instead of their behavior. It is most often packaged in “you always” or “you never” statements.
The pitfall of criticism is that the accused gets in a defensive mode. And this leads to a gridlock where a temporary truce can get ensured either by threat or fear or an urge to restore the peace back in the house. But soon, the issue resurfaces because
the core underlying expression failed to get acknowledged and understood.
In my client’s case, his wife goes into criticizing mode. What we have to understand is that under every complaint lies a deep longing for connection, but the recipient doesn’t always see it. Instead, they see the complainer as an adversary. Even the complainer fails to understand their goal behind complaining. That is why most nagging persists – because we fail to address the root cause of the complaint.
So the next time you’re going to complain, ask yourself, “What do I need?”.
Some, if not all, complaints can be sorted if we follow a 3-step approach of effective
expression and effective listening.
1. Soft start-up – When we are hurt, or when we find that our needs are not met up, it is too easy for us to resort to a harsh start-up that targets the character of the person. Instead, we can begin with a soft start-up by stating how we feel. This feeling is usually an emotion like anger, pain, fear, abandonment, or a physical state like tiredness. Expressing such deep emotions often involves a state of vulnerability, and most of us shy away from doing that. But it is important, even for the benefit of our own clarity, that we should know how a particular situation or a certain act has made
2. Keep the discussion limited to the situation – Now that you spoke about your feeling, you should talk about the behavior or situation that caused that feeling. A lot of times, we are driven by the impulse to prove ourselves right at any cost and thus start counting incident after incident that affirms our “position” by talking about a set
pattern of behavior of the doer. It will help if you stick to just one incident, as a
barrage of accusations relating to other incidents is more likely to turn the complaint into criticism (remember criticism is “always” or “never”).
3. State a positive need – Finally, ask your partner to take positive action to resolve the complaint.
Now let’s apply this formula to the issue between my client and his wife, and see how the discussion might have ended differently if they tried following the 3-step approach.
Wife: I feel that my needs are being neglected (how I feel) when you change the
channel all of a sudden (specific situation). Can you let me finish my favorite serial first? That will make me feel attended to (express a positive need).
Husband: I feel tired and unmotivated (how I feel) after a long grueling workday (specific situation). Please let me watch tv for a while once I come back home. That helps me recoup from work fatigue (express a positive need).
Wife: I’m sad (how I feel) that you simply get to watch TV until it’s time for dinner. You do not even look at me (specific situation). I do care about your happiness. I’d like it if you watched tv for some time to change your mood and then talk to me (express a positive need).
Husband: That’s fair. Let’s do that.
The secret recipe
While a resolution isn’t guaranteed, effective complaining enables partners to engage in conflict and look at resolutions, which is something that criticism puts out of reach. It is not true that happy, satisfied couples do not fight or have complaints about each other. Many couples have built thriving relationships despite long-lasting,
unresolved conflicts. These couples have learned to steer through these conflicts by complaining instead of criticizing. Remember! Complaining targets the problem, criticizing targets the character of the person. Keep your complaints from becoming criticisms, as complaints will be a lesser nuisance when compared to the destructive power of criticism.