Three Keys to Handling Complaints Positively

Woman ignoring man yelling at herThe way we express ourselves to our partners really does matter, especially when we are communicating complaints. A statement that starts with “you” or uses the words “never” or “always” will likely be interpreted as blaming and will beget a defensive response. Once a conversation dissolves into attack-and-defend, the issues at hand will be left unresolved.

Although statements such as “You never put your clothes in the hamper” or “You’re always late” look, feel, and sound like complaints, they are actually requests for a partner to change his/her behavior, expressed in a frustrated, angry, or negative way.

Making a conscious effort to turn complaints into positive requests will transform couples’ conversations from ones of blame and anger to those that lead to resolution and connection. The dialogues below show the different results when “Travis” complains to “Kari,” first in a negative way and then by using a positive request:

Travis: You spend too much time on Facebook. (Negative complaint)

Kari: No, I don’t. That’s how I keep in touch with all my friends. (Defensive response)

Travis: Every night when I get home you are at the computer. You can barely tear yourself away to greet me. And then after dinner you’re back at it. It’s taken over your life! (Criticism and blame)

Kari: Yeah, and you are out with the guys three nights a week playing baseball! (Anger and blame)

Travis: At least that will keep me in shape. (Passive-aggressive dig)

Kari: Are you saying I’m not in shape? (Anger and hurt)

Travis: No. I just think you should exercise.

A better way …

Travis: Honey, I’ve been feeling lonely lately. I loved when we used to watch our shows together and cuddle. (Positive request; owns the problem)

Kari: Really? I had no idea you felt that way. (Empathetic and curious)

Travis: It seems like you’ve become more involved in Facebook. I know you like to connect with your friends, but when you are on the computer at night, we miss our “us” time. (Validates partner’s needs and asks for his needs to be met)

Kari: Yes, and with you being gone three nights a week for baseball, we have less time together. (Joins in identifying the problem)

Travis: I would love if you would come watch our games sometimes. Some of the other wives are there. (Problem solving)

Kari: That sounds great. And I’ll cut back being on the computer at night when we are home together. (Joins in problem solving)

Travis: Thanks for talking about it. Let’s go watch our show—together!

You can see that the way this complaint or request is approached determines the outcome. Here are the three keys to change a negative complaint into a positive request.

  1. Own the problem: Start sentences with “I” statements. Ask for what you need or want in a positive way, instead of saying what you don’t like in a negative way. This engenders an encouraging and nondefensive response.
  2. Validate your partner: At the same time you are asking for your needs to be met, you can validate your partner’s behavior or point of view. This communicates that you are not blaming him/her or intending to make him/her wrong (and you right).
  3. Suggest positive solutions: Offer a positive way to have your needs met, and ask your partner for suggestions.

The result of communication really does depend on how the message is presented. William Carlos Williams said: “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.”

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • shirley

    shirley

    May 15th, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    I will admit that I am so bad at this. Any time any little thing is wrong I start with the complaining- I know I am doing it but I just can’t help myself sometimes and I know that it is really starting to bother my husband a whole lot. I am afraid that one day he will get so mad he will just up and leave and while I definitely don’t want that to happen I don’t know any other way to express myself .

  • betsy

    betsy

    May 16th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    Any time you frame the words with a little bit of softness, and not with blame and accusation, then there is a much greater chance that it is going to be accepted in a little more positive way. If you start out grouchy, then generally this is the overall direction that the entire conversation will take.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    May 16th, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    Shirley,
    Don’t feel bad. We all do this, including me! However, if you can use the steps in the article to turn it around some of the time, it will be received a whole lot better. It takes practice. You might have to write it down first – the complaint and then how you can turn it around.
    Best wishes,
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    May 16th, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Betsy,
    You got it! Thanks for your comment!!
    Lori

  • Parsons

    Parsons

    May 17th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    Personally I find that the people who like to complain a whole lot are the ones who don’t really do too well when someone gives it back to them.

    they are all for airing their own gripes, but don’t want to hear anything bad or negative that someone might be feeling about them.
    If you are going to serve it up, then you have to be willing to take a little bit too.

  • Bruce

    Bruce

    May 20th, 2013 at 5:02 AM

    Wow, I wish my wife would readt this because she is the absolute WORST when I complain about something. You know, she is always thinking that I am complaining ABOUT her, telling her that she could do something better, and it drives me insane that she takes everything so personally. I really want her to understand that it’s not always about her, that I am just lodging a general complaint but she always takes it as a compalint AGAINST her. How do I say things in a way that she won’t feel like she is being attacked, or is this something that she has to figure out for herself? Because sometimes it honestly feels like I am beating my head against a wall.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    May 20th, 2013 at 7:59 AM

    Parsons,
    Yes, communicating complaints has got to go both ways! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    May 20th, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Bruce,
    Can you turn the complaint into a request for her to do something and use the starter, “It would really make me happy if…” or “I love it when you…Would you…”
    Make sure you are using “I” statements instead of “You” statements. If it doesn’t go well, use the starter, “Honey, help me understand why it upsets you so much when I ask for…” Then just listen to empathize with her reply. For ex., “I didn’t realize you took it that way. That wasn’t my intention.” “What would be the best way for me to ask you to…?”

    If that doesn’t work, email me your specific example and I’ll see what I can suggest.
    Take care,
    Lori

  • erin e

    erin e

    April 30th, 2015 at 11:01 PM

    My boyfriend wants to get married and move in with me. I’m so scared and worried, because the first time he asked me out, I rejected him because I was dating someone else at the time and it was the man for me and I know it, but I was so blinded in the relationship I didn’t see that the person who really did care about me and liked me just the way I am, is not the person I was with. I broke up with the person that I was with. I dated the new guy, he was really nice to me, after two are three weeks he said I love you, I said to him that was too fast to say that to me after two are three months he said he wanted more than that, but the sex was great! It took me six months and a short break up to make me realize and recognize his complements and I am trying to be more positive. And I’m more happier then I’ve been. But I still don’t know about married, I’m not ready for it, I just don’t want to lose the spice and flare like a spark.

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