There’s nothing worse than listening to someone constantly complain. But there’s no escaping it. The average person complains between 15-30 times per day, making it an unfortunate part of our daily routine. Even though airing your complaints feels like lifting a weight off your chest, the negative energy it creates can be off-putting and frustrating for those around you.
Complaining is also bad for your physical and mental health because it causes your body to release extra cortisol, the stress hormone, activating your fight or flight response. From a therapist’s perspective, this is one of the most detrimental consequences of perpetual negativity. When you’re in a constant defense response, you might feel fatigued, have trouble remembering things, or become depressed or emotionally numb.
Despite its consequences, complaining can be effective—if done correctly. I'm sharing all the details on how to complain politely, according to a therapist. When you voice your grievances in a productive way, you’re more likely to have a positive and productive interaction.
So, if you’re a chronic complainer, it’s time to reexamine your ways of thinking. Here are eight ways to complain politely and still get what you want (and take care of your health).
How To Complain Politely: 8 Strategies, According to a Therapist
1. Complain in person and at the right time.
There’s a time and a place for everything, including complaining. Be conscious of when you bring up concerns to another person to lessen the chance of a negative response—which is highly likely if you start complaining to someone before a big event, when they’re stressed or if they’ve had a hard day. Pick a moment where both of you can engage in a private conversation without worrying about time constraints or distractions.
2. Use "I" statements.
Language holds immense power; this power can make or break a situation, so choose your words wisely. When complaining, use "I" statements that emphasize how you feel rather than casting blame. “I” statements also open the door to a healthy discussion, while the alternative “you” statements can make a person become defensive.
Say you’re waiting for a friend to pick you up to go see a movie. Instead of saying, “You’re always late, I can never count on you,” try taking a less direct statement like “I get frustrated when we’re late for events.”
3. Speak positively and precisely.
Don’t waste your time talking in circles when you’re complaining. To avoid this, use precise language that provides specific examples, details and context to help the other person understand what you’re saying. Clarity is key.
It’s also important to be positive in your delivery. You can count on a frustrated response if you approach someone in a harsh tone and closed body language. The energy you give off alters the recipient’s perspective, so start your complaint calmly and friendly.
4. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Before voicing your complaint, take a moment to acknowledge the other person's viewpoint. As told by Atticus in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Think about what they might be feeling or thinking, empathizing with them. For example, begin with a phrase like, "I understand that you have a lot on your plate, but I'd like to discuss an issue that's been bothering me."
5. Avoid attacking a person’s character.
Have you ever had someone criticize a part of your personality? It doesn’t feel good. When you use a person’s character to justify your harsh complaint, they’re more likely to render what you say virtually useless. Personal attacks take the focus away from the problem at hand, delaying a solution. Avoid hurting someone’s feelings by focusing on the behavior, not the person, when addressing a concern.
6. Don’t only focus on the problem. Offer solutions.
Have a solution-focused mindset when you bring your complaints to someone. Once you figure out the appropriate person to voice your concerns to, start with a short explanation of the problem and then introduce a way to solve it. These solutions should be practical, logical and feasible. This way, it shows you’re committed to working together toward a resolution.
7. Use complaint sandwiches.
To lessen the blow of your complaint, sandwich it between two positive statements. Let’s go back to the same example from earlier about working on a project with someone. If you’re unhappy with how the project looks, start with gratitude, mention the problem next, and finish with a statement encouraging them and focusing on the future.
Here’s an example: “I really appreciate the effort you’ve put into the project. However, I did notice a couple of places where we could improve, like the presentation's visuals. I think creating some would make it look more engaging. What do you think? I’m confident that with your skills, we can finish this project and make it look great!”
8. Have an open mind.
Resolving a complaint is a team effort. While it’s important to introduce a problem from your perspective, be receptive and open-minded about what they have to say in return. This goes hand-in-hand with having empathy and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. However, you should also be open-minded with yourself in case you feel like you need to change your position. Don’t get so stuck in your own ways that you forget the purpose of the conversation.
Conquering the Complaining Conundrum
Complaining is a universal language—everyone does it. But while there’s a healthy and positive way to complain, that’s not always the path we choose. However, by using these eight strategies to complain politely, you can take control of how you communicate the things that bother you—conquering the complaining conundrum.