Do you remember when department stores had a Complaint Department? Some poor soul sat behind a counter and listened to customers' gripes all day, every day. As horrid as that job would be, the benefit of it was that the complaints were (hopefully) heard by someone who could fix them, or had some control over the way things were done in that store. I think that is a concept that we need to consider using in our daily lives.
In my previous life as an assistant principal, I received many complaints from parents about teachers. Always, always, I asked if the parent had talked to the teacher about the issue before calling me. More times than not, the answer was no. This always surprised and disappointed me. I could not understand why a parent would not talk to the teacher if there was a problem. Wouldn't the teacher know far more about the situation than I, a relative outsider, would? Wouldn't the teacher be able to clear up any misunderstandings that had occurred when the student came home with a story about something that had happened in class? I am sure I made many parents unhappy when I insisted that they call the teacher to discuss the issue before involving me in it any further. How can the teacher make positive changes or clear up misunderstandings if never approached about the problem? I believe that, whenever possible, you should take your complaints to the person who has control over the situation.
Likewise, when friends have complained to me about problems with co-workers, their bosses, relatives, business people, whatever, I have encouraged them to talk to the person who could answer their questions, explain the situation, or make a change if needed. I'm happy to listen, but it does no good to air your grievances to someone who has absolutely no control over the problem. It might make us feel a little better to rant and rave and vent our spleen, but it does not resolve anything. The problem is still exactly what it was before the gripe session.
Even worse, the rancor caused by the discontent continues. Not only is the problem unresolved, but there are hard feelings between the person with the complaint and the source of their complaint. Most often, the target of this rancor is blissfully unaware that a problem even exists, because the one who is unhappy has never voiced that opinion to the right person.
This year, this has been a particularly painful problem for me at work. I have become aware that there are people who do not like the way I do my job. This is no surprise - the nature of my job as an instructional coach virtually guarantees that not everyone will approve of the way I do my job. A large part of my job is to (gently) push teachers a little beyond their comfort zone into what have proven to be best practices. Pushing gently is tricky. Some people prefer not to be pushed at all; others thrive on being pushed. I totally understand that. What I find most difficult to understand is why any of my coworkers would not come talk to me about their dissatisfaction instead of letting their resentment build up so much that they spew venom to others about me. That seems unfair.
A few years ago, we studied a chapter of a book* that dealt with how to meet complaints from others. The authors wrote about how important it is to guide employees to meet criticism with curiosity, rather than defensiveness. They advised us to ask ourselves, "What part of this problem have I caused?" I have worked on this response myself many times since reading that chapter. It is not a natural response, but it can be done. I like to think that I could (eventually, if not immediately) meet complaints with more curiosity that defensiveness. However, if complaints about me aren't brought to me, I never have the chance to be curious about the way I do things. If we don't approach others about our dissatisfaction, we deny them a chance to explain themselves or to improve what they do.
I know that it is difficult - most of us shy away from confrontation - but perhaps we need to make an attempt to take our complaints to the correct complaint department - to the person who has control over the situation. It would probably be healthier and make us all happier if we did.
*Chapter Two, "Curiosity", of Radical Change, Radical Results by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, 2003, published by Kaplan Business