Four Types of Complaining

And which one can actually be beneficial

Humans love to complain. We keep ourselves off balance through the way we complain, or in some cases the way we withhold our complaints. The funny thing about complaining is, many people are not clear on what it is they are complaining about, and many people confuse complaining with criticizing. A little secret here, 99 percent of the time you’re complaining about something because you are feeling that a value of yours has been threatened or compromised in some way. (It always goes back to values.)

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Before we can talk about a new way to complain, we first must establish the difference between a complaint and a criticism. In general, a complaint is an expression of a feeling of displeasure. A criticism is rooted in judgment of the actions, values, or work of others. It is possible that sometimes you’re feeling of displeasure comes out as criticism, meaning that it’s easy to make the displeasure you are feeling someone else’s fault — for example, blaming your boss for you having to stay late or your partner for you not having the time to go to the gym. It is through taking accountability of your displeasure (your complaining) that you can create action. That said not all complaints create action as there are four different types of complaining.

Frivolous or Recreational Complaints
These types of complaints validate a person’s view of the world or can make fun of or belittle something. Many times you don’t even need someone to hear these types of complaints. For example, “I have to work late Friday night”, you could be alone at your desk when saying this.

Empathy Seeking Complaints
These types of complaints are expressed by people who just want to be heard. You only want someone to care, you don’t need the other person to fix it, just listen and care. (Or even pretending to listen works here too.) We might say, “I have to work late a second Friday night in a row”, so we can hear someone else say to us “that’s a bummer.”

(Psychology tells us these first two types of complaints are good for us — they are also called venting — and can be a helpful way to process our displeasure.)

Withholding Complaints
This is the most toxic way to complain. It’s when people say nothing at all and begin to harbor resentment and internalize anger. They might start to exhibit passive aggressive behavior — or even just plain aggressive behavior. For example, “I have to work late a third Friday night in a row — no problem at all — happy to be here.” When in fact the tone of voice and e-mails reveals something different.

Action Complaints
These types of complaints are expressed by people who want action or change to occur and are committed to not repeating the past. For example, “I have to work late a fourth Friday night in a row — what can we do different so we are not here next week?” The displeasure is expressed with a request to discuss a path for change or action.

It is easy to see the difference; the challenging part is being aware of who you are sharing what type of complaint with. For example, your manager probably doesn’t want to hear your recreational complaints, but he or she might be more interested in your action complaints. If you want to complain to be heard — just say so, “Can you listen to me right now? I don’t need you to solve this — just hear me out.” Or if you need help you can say, “I’m stuck and could use some feedback what do you think if we tried a different approach?”

If you happen to be on the receiving end of a complaint and are not sure what type of complaining it is, just ask, “Do you need me to do anything?” Many times that is enough for the person complaining to create a bit of awareness around what they need from you in the conversation.

The best practice is before you share your displeasure with others through complaining, understand what it is you are seeking in doing so. Now go forth and own your complaints!

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