A Complaint Free World: 5 Ways to Respond

One of the strengths I appreciate in my team members is their ability to voice concerns or raise red flags when something important is affecting our students. I am so thankful for helpful feedback.
Of course, there is a big difference between honest conversation and complaining. Will Bowen explains that the habit of complaining is like bad breathe: you may not be aware of your own, but others are.
Honest feedback provides you with information for making better decisions. Complaining simply discourages the attitudes or motivations others may have to take risks or achieve new goals. All of us are guilty of forgetting the difference between the two.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to speak at a conference for elementary principals. While I was there, I had the privilege of meeting Will Bowen, who provided the opening the keynote. In his book, A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, he provides great illustrations, research, and practical tips for exchanging the bad habit of complaining for a new mindset.
Using the acronym GRIPE, he also gives practical applications for not only dealing with your own complaining habits but also knowing how to respond to it in others. Specifically, he taught five reasons why people gripe, and 5 strategies for responding when they do. Whether you’re looking for some tips to change your own mindset, or responding to complaining in others, check these out:

5 Reasons People Gripe and How You Can Respond

1. Get attention.
Everyone wants to be noticed even if it is for something negative. Unfortunately, if we use negative “attention grabbing” (by even complaining about the weather, work, family, or our health), we suck the life out of others.
Obviously, there is a difference between honest reflection and complaining. But complaining is when we express an idea for the purpose of selfish appeal or ego. So what if we get a handle on this bad habit ourselves, but others still drain us with their complaints?
Bowen suggests that when someone complains to get attention, ask them, “So what is going well with _____________?” For instance, if a team member is consistently complaining about his students, ask him, “So what is going well with your classes?” Redirect a person’s thoughts to thankfulness instead of misery, and then you can begin finding solutions.
2. Remove responsibility.
People also complain as way to try to get off the hook. Perhaps we believe our protests mean we will not have to perform to expectations. Let’s say, for instance, when someone is being corrected for being habitually late with deadlines, he may want to point out that others are missing their deadlines too. Or perhaps he’ll claim the solution is beyond his control.
Bowen suggests asking this question: “If it were possible, how might you do it?” Again this question removes the excuses and opens the door for solutions.
3. Inspire Envy (or the Humble Brag)
Sometimes people complain about others because they want to appear superior. For instance, if you’re in a meeting, and Mrs. T sees Mr. A coming in late, she may say, “Here comes Mr. A. Late again.” Her comment is less about his tardiness as it may be to draw attention to her own timeliness.
Bowen suggests this counter: compliment the opposite.
You could say to Mrs. T., “Yes, Mrs. T. It is great that you are always on time.” Although this may be perceived as slightly sarcastic, drawing attention to her need to inspire envy may be the quickest way to stop her complaining about others. Changing the subject is also a great way to ignore someone’s appeal for a “humble” brag.
4. Power
Sadly, people who are unhappy often find a sense of control in sharing their opinions through the means of complaining about others. Bowen’s counter? If someone comes to you because they want to complain or gossip about another person, you might say, “It sounds like the two of you have a lot to talk about.” If they persist, “Would you like me to arrange a meeting?” This response may either point them toward reconciliation or it may motivate them to find a way to move past the offense.
5. Excuse Poor Performance
Much like removing responsibility, complaining is the quickest way to divert a moment of honest confrontation or accountability. In team sports, athletes who are not easy to coach are usually weak teammates. Our educational teams are no different. We are often tempted to begin complaining about what we perceive as obstacles beyond our control.
But instead of complaining as a way to excuse poor performance, Bowen says to ask, “How do I plan to improve next time?” Again, excuses are exchanged for brainstorming solutions when you replace complaining with ideas for change.


Bowen ended his presentation with a story about Michael Carmichael, a painter. One day, Michael saw one of his son’s baseballs sitting by his workbench. On a whim, he painted the baseball with a coat of paint. Adding a coat each day became his end-of-the-day ritual. This ritual became a habit, and 30 years later, this regulation-size baseball is now 14 feet in circumference and weighs 2.5 tons–an object that attracts roadside tourists from all over America.
As quirky as that habit became for Carmichael, new habits are formed the same way: little by little, one decision and choice at a time. When you take the small steps day by day, you can eventually transform conversations, attitudes, and actions from “gripes” into growth.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are some ways you see the power of complaining influencing your own thoughts and attitudes? How can you begin to avoid those unproductive “gripe” sessions and turn them into conversations that are not only more productive and encouraging but also solution-finding for others and yourself?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker