worldmegan

The Anti-Value of Complaints and Criticism

by Megan M. on February 24, 2009 · 16 comments (Blog) | email me

This week began the first principle in Dale Carnegie’s book for a small group of Alt MBA students who expressed interest in taking How to Win Friends and Influence People in measured steps. Until Sunday night (and hopefully much longer!), we’ve resolved not to criticize, condemn, or complain.

I have a teeny case of the high horse here, but this is still hard for me. If you’re used to criticizing and complaining, it can be hard to give up. It can be hard to see how it could possibly benefit you to quit! In fact, it can feel a lot like you’re giving up your power to affect the world around you—after all, many of us learned directly from our parents that the best way to change other people was to harp at them. (Don’t worry. You’re not alone.)

The thing is, criticism and complaints don’t actually get you anywhere. You may feel like they’re letting you vent, getting it out of your system, or helping you work through a difficult problem—but the criticism and the complaints parts of the equation don’t get you closer to those goals. They set you back from them. Any specific negativity will do this. If you’re succeeding, it’s in spite of yourself. (Incidentally, some incredibly successful people have removed complaints from their routine, not even counting Dale.)

You know as well as I do that resolutions like this one are tough, but the effects they have on your life are amazing. You start to understand people better, and it’s easier to empathize with them. It’s easier to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and grok what they’re going through. It dramatically reduces the amount of negativity, conflict, and drama in your life. (You think your life is hard? Quit criticizing, quit condemning, and quit complaining. It will get ridiculously easier—almost overnight!)

I don’t care what you have to do. Bite your tongue. Use a substitute (at one time, I was partial to “bananaphone”). Replace one set of habits with another. Stand on your head, or give someone a buck, or toss a piece of chocolate into the trash every time you hear a complaint coming out of your mouth. (Or switch your 21-day no complaints bracelet to the other wrist, and start all over again.) It doesn’t matter what it takes; if you make this happen, you’ll see a great change in your life, and you won’t be all that sure you want to go back to the way things were.

What are they worth anyway, complains and criticism? They remind you that you’re feeling bad. They don’t lead you to solve the problem—the more you complain, the less you’re solving anything at all. Often, complaints make the people around you uncomfortable (depending on their intensity, and your environment) and unfettered criticism definitely makes someone somewhere feel bad—if not, you have to wonder if they’ll eventually find out, which isn’t all that enjoyable either.

Instead of criticizing, try to understand what the other person is going through. Realize that you’d probably be doing the same thing if you were them. Offer constructive suggestions, but don’t simply tell a person what she’s doing wrong. That never helps. Tell her what she’s doing right—and help her along.

Instead of complaining, build an intelligent plan to manage the thing you’d otherwise be complaining about. Make a change. Make a lot of changes! Don’t bemoan your lot—fix it. You’ll get more done in less time, and your friends will quit worrying that someday, it’ll be them you’re complaining about. Be positive, be optimistic, and be constructive. You’ll feel great about yourself, and productive, too—you’ll grow faster.

You know me, I’ll do anything in the name of conscious growth. ;}

So give it a try, will you?

  • Nick

    right on.

    i see complaining as a removal of yourself from power. when we complain we are shifting the responsibility from ourselves to something else. it's saying i don't like the way the world is and that thing is the cause. still, there is no action by the person themselves. it's as if someone else is suppose to fix the problem. and frequently they will just continue to complain because they won't acknowledge they have the power to fix. hence, a removal from power.

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    Also, I think complaining gets addictive. The more you do it, the more you fall back on it. (For me, it's a gross cycle—so the more I find myself complaining, the more uncomfortable I am until I put a stop to it. For that matter, it makes me uncomfortable with other people, too—I can never figure out why they're not just fixing it instead.)

  • Green

    I'm not sure I agree. Sometimes, if there's a problem with something and you choose not to complain about it, then it can't get fixed. Like if I have someone build me a boat, and I hate how narrow the walkways are, I need to bring that up, or I'm gonna end up hating my boat.

    It depends on your definition of complaint, I guess. I need to be able to express that I don't like something. It's already hard enough when friendship is involved to stand up for your dislike of something. Why make it harder by eliminating criticism?

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    I think that Dale Carnegie's definition of complaints and criticism inherently take into consideration how you complain or criticize. Therefore, I'm not against truly constructive criticism as long as it's done in a compassionate way—and I'm not against voicing issues or complaints that have a purpose for being voiced. If I can speak up to fix a thing (or ask that it be fixed, if I am not a boat walkway building specialist), it's not a complaint. But if I talk about something I don't like and am too lazy to make a plan for getting it fixed—move us forward in some way—that's complaining.

    I think it's all about how it feels to you, and how it feels to the other person. Negativity by itself can get ugly. Understanding, compassionate and helpful suggestion-making isn't strictly criticism (but we might need to calibrate our “criticism” definition in order to agree about it). Expressing that you don't like something is awesome if you've decided it needs to change, and put forward the steps to change it. But why talk about something you don't like unless you're willing to engage in those circumstances? It goes nowhere.

    “I don't like school. It's lame.” So I either find a way to make it not lame, or I stop going. But if I keep saying that I don't like it, having recognized my feeling goes on to be kind of useless. So if I persist in feeling that way and either won't or can't do anything about it, complaining about it just makes me feel worse about my situation instead of working to get through it or make it better.

    I think this new comment system encourages me to respond lengthily. Interesting effect.

  • Green

    I guess, but I also think people need criticism. If no one ever tells them what they're doing wrong, or how they can better do their work, then they might float along thinking everything they do is wonderful and needs no progress.

    I also think “complaining” and “criticizing” are two very different things, and both can go too far, into hurtful and unproductive. But I think everything should be subject to criticism, otherwise there's no room for incorporating the sometimes better ideas or expertize of others.

  • Nick

    “I can never figure out why they're not just fixing it instead”
    I suspect it falls back to the idea of responsibility. One must own the fault. As if it is also their fault. It's convenient and easy to not acknowledge your faults. You are not responsible for something that is not your fault.

    It also fall heavily into the victim archetype. A victim is not just blameless but in fact deserving of sympathy/attention. Playing a victim is an easy way to grab support from those around you. It works. I see pitty parties all the time. And sometimes this makes sense. However, sometimes it's also a manipulative technique.

  • Nick

    • nods in agreement about criticism*
      the term “constructive criticism” comes to mind. we shouldn't be afraid to work with people to improve the quality of anything. which is the purpose of criticism.

      the difference i typically see between complaining and criticism is that complaining is not usually intended to improve the situation but instead a cry that the world is not as you wish.

      another distinction:
      complaining is an attempt to appeal to the sympathy of others so you'll get support.
      criticizing is an attempt to appeal to the other person so they'll improve their work.

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    I was discussing this with Em and thinking about it – I think the definition of the words is a big issue with discussions like these, because I can totally see what you're saying and how you're defining your terms, but I definite mine differently in order to make more concrete the behavior I don't want to engage in. I suspect that Dale's definitions are skewed toward complaining that accomplishes nothing but negative reminders, and criticism that serves to let the other person know they have something to feel bad about—rather than behavior that serves to push us towards positive ends and growth.

    So for your first paragraph, for instance, I would say: You can acknowledge mistakes and help a person to change and grow without engaging in harsh criticism—and you can call that criticism, too, but there is one kind that I'd steer clear of. And when it comes to complaining, it's one thing to make a speculative statement—but quite another to say a thing (or repeat it) for the purpose of having others feel bad about you, or feeling like the most important (most miserable) person in the room.

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    So that makes me wonder—how would you couch a need to avoid negativity, if the words you use aren't already defined in ways that allow you to steer clear of them? What funny grey areas we've got!

    Also, I'm going to see about limiting these comments to a couple of nested threads instead of infinite nested threads—we're getting SQUISHED! :D Heehee!

  • Missy

    Nice post Megan. :)

  • Green

    I guess I don't see how “an attempt to appeal to the sympathy of others so you'll get support” is so bad. It can get annoying if it's constantly employed as a way of garnering attention. But in moderation there's nothing wrong with wanting a friend to listen to your problem. After your need for compassion is met and you feel safe and listened to, then you can get along with the business of fixing the problem. :)

  • Nick

    yeah. i tried to stay away from a judgmental attitude toward it. which is btw why the quoted line can easily be thought of as being acceptable. still, my own biases may be seeping through. =P

    i also find the appeal to others in order to obtain support to be acceptable. everyone does it. in fact, i think we do really NEED it at times. i place some caution with the obsessive usage of complaining backed by a reservation to do anything about it. i see two clear choices when complaining: working to change the problem or acceptance of the problem. now, find a way to pick one option and move on.

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    I really like this way of looking at it – that it's necessary to talk about difficulties and get support, but that there's a line between stating a complaint and taking that complaint further without being willing to let it go, get over it, or take action. I'm not completely sure how to define that line yet, but we're certainly managing to ourselves closer to a definition.

    Do we need words other than “complaint” and “criticism”? Are they not appropriate words for the behaviors we're talking about? I could go either way—very curious!

  • Green

    There are certainly other words that could be used..

    Venting vs Complaining vs Kvetching
    Critiquing vs Criticizing vs Bashing

    In both cases I see the words as going from productive to neutral to unproductive, and the first line describing more emotionally charged behavior.

    But that's just how I see it. :)

  • http://worldmegan.net/ Megan M.

    This is fascinating stuff—I think I am finding that I really do disagree, though, at least about complaining. (Criticism I'm thinking about—I do think constructive criticism is a good thing, but at the same time, I am starting to be of the opinion that it may not be the best way to go about helping someone. Still working on that.)

    In regards to complaining, I think we have different definitions we're using. Mine is something like this: Complaining is continuing to dwell on a negative issue after the initial moment of acknowledgement without actively working towards some kind of solution (or letting it go).

    I think your use of “kvetching” here is adorable though.

  • http://ideaschema.org/ Megan M.

    This is fascinating stuff—I think I am finding that I really do disagree, though, at least about complaining. (Criticism I'm thinking about—I do think constructive criticism is a good thing, but at the same time, I am starting to be of the opinion that it may not be the best way to go about helping someone. Still working on that.)

    In regards to complaining, I think we have different definitions we're using. Mine is something like this: Complaining is continuing to dwell on a negative issue after the initial moment of acknowledgement without actively working towards some kind of solution (or letting it go).

    I think your use of “kvetching” here is adorable though.

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