Chapter 3. Complain Responsibly

Exactly what is a complaint? As simple as this question may sound, I think that most people will not be able to answer it successfully. Is it a problem that we did not foresee? An action that has led to our resentment? The playwright Bertolt Brecht said that as soon as something seems the most obvious thing in the world, it means that we have abandoned all attempts to understand it. I think we may have done this with words like complain, conversation, commitment, uncertainty, promises, agreements and many, many more concepts that we take for granted. Sir Ken Robinson talks about taking things for granted in his book The Element:

“One of the key principles of the Element is that we need to challenge what we take for granted about our abilities and the abilities of other people. This isn’t as easy as one might imagine. Part of the problem with identifying the things we take for granted is that we don’t know what they are because we take them for granted in the first place. They become basic assumptions that we don’t question, part of the fabric of our logic. We don’t question them because we see them as fundamental, as an internal part of our lives. Like air. Or gravity. Or Oprah.”

What is the purpose of a complaint? Is there a responsible procedure that we can agree to use? Is it an expression to ensure that we can avoid the issue in the future? Surely then the most responsible complaint I ever make would be to avoid the problem in the first place? Maybe! Or that could lead me to the question to speak or not to speak or possibly develop a better way.

Resentment is not a complaint! I think it is the result of not complaining responsibly and making sure that the problem never occurred in the first place. It is the internal frustration at being stupid enough to allow such problems to occur in the first place. Resentment does not solve the problem that complaining responsibly can, and may result in revenge. As the saying goes, “If you go down the path of revenge, take two coffins”.

So what can we do to avoid slipping into resentment?
Simply voice your complaint, and present all of your evidence. Get an acceptable apology from the alleged perpetrator so that you can feel confident that, from now on, the problem will be less likely to recur.

Four Steps to Complaining Responsibly

  1. Go directly to the person involved with the issues.
    (don’t go to your best friend and discuss them over a coffee)
  2. Use agreed rules of engagement (6A Framework)
    (make sure you agree before the issue arises)
  3. Agree to use a process of starting new agreements
    (i.e. “From now on..” is a good way to move forward)
  4. Continue to improve agreements (return to step 1)

Despite our best efforts, failure sometimes occurs when we try making responsible complaints. I mean, we can’t be expected to complain perfectly responsibly, can we? Most complaints don’t reach their intended, rightful recipient; that is, the person or organisation the objection should be directed at. And if it does reach the target, it is not delivered in the same format in which it first started out. Usually, it arrives weeks later, compounded by numerous other complaints, demands, frustrations, resentment, and lack of appreciation. This is especially true for business, but also true for interpersonal relations. If you are on the receiving end of criticism, you may be the last to hear it. If we could only hear complaints before they began making the rounds behind our backs, we would be blessed with a plethora of feedback and pertinent information that we could use to modify our behavior, or at least to start addressing the situation.

One way we seem to send and receive complaints is through “breadcrumbs” or cryptic messages that we are supposed to decipher in order to figure out what the problem is. A good start but I am suggesting a more responsible method.

If you doubt what I am saying, eavesdrop on conversations around you when at cafes or on the street.  I’m reasonably certain you will find the dialogue consists of countless complaints of unfulfilled desires. However, they are not delivered to the ears of the person, government, or business that they are claiming contributed to the problem.

So how do we change this entrenched culture? Should we even recognize such behavior as a problem that needs changing at all? This book is an attempt to expose what I consider to be an obvious problem, and to suggest a number of solutions and tools that could turn this behavior around. I think that it has been so long since we have disclosed our complaints responsibly to the rightful recipients that we have forgotten how it is done.

At the same time, we seem to have forgotten how to hear such direct approaches and dissenting information. We have to change how we deliver complaints and how we receive them. Rethink Perfect is the story of my personal journey to rediscover the art of complaining responsibly, of how I learned to dissect the two skills of giving and receiving complaints, and of my attempts to apply responsible complaints to my own behavior.

When you think about it, it is pretty obvious that it is not what we have in common that causes our relationships to disintegrate, but what we don’t have in common that provokes our unresolved disputes. But where can we find information that shows the proper way to deliver this information to our intended? How do we go about airing our complaints so that we can get a constructive and balanced outcome for all? Where is the dialogue amongst our peers and elders reminding us that the direct approach is the best way? Who will give us the tools that we should use to deliver and hear the messages that are most difficult to give and to receive?

What if I told you that there is a long lost method detailed in the bible? (Now, don’t worry, I am not about to bible bash you. Rethink Perfect has no ties with God or Jesus. I only reference this verse like any other book that I have read over my 51 years.) This verse is less than 10 lines long, but summarizes my quest to find out how to deal with someone or an organisation that we have a problem with.

Go directly to the source of your complaint

Matthew 18:15-17 In plain English: if you have an issue with someone, go to that person alone to discuss and try to resolve it. If unsuccessful, then try again with a witness or two, and establish each person’s argument. If still unsuccessful, take the dispute before your family or whatever organisation or section you both belong to. If still unsuccessful, then it is time to part company.

Now some people might say, “What if it is a small issue?” I say that if you cannot resolve a “small” issue, then what chance have you got to resolve a big issue in the future? It is now becoming more apparent to me that Rethink Perfect – and my quest to show the upside of uncertainty in a relationship – is built around this method of conversing. This simple and long lost method of complaining to each other directly and listening to complaints will allow us to change and improve our situations so much more effectively than we are now doing. No more sweeping “small issues” under the carpet.

If you look at how we process our legal complaints, the legal system pretty much encompasses this verse. But applying such a process in our community and with interpersonal relations would be a very interesting approach, and possibly reduce a lot of legal processes and save millions of dollars if it were used.

Let’s assume that we have agreed that we need to deal directly with the people and organisations with which we had problems. Our next step would be to agree on a process of sharing our complaints, so that we could get some satisfaction. The next chapter explains my proposed process to complain responsibly.

If you lose it (your cool) we’ve lost it (the plot). I was talking to a woman recently, and I told her about a poem that I wrote some 30 years ago when I was 21. It went something like this:

My knowledge of women is but a speck,
and that’s because they’re extraterrestrials, I expect.
My fear of them is something I don’t lack,
and that’s because of their habit to attack……..

She questioned my line about women’s “habit to attack”, so I asked her if she knew any women that did not become aggressive? In return, she wondered whether I knew any men that did not get aggressive? I agreed, but countered that we all know that a man’s aggression is unacceptable, whereas I have found that most women seem to justify their aggression by blaming men.

I think it is time for us to agree that all anger and aggression, whether from men or women, is unacceptable. Understandable, yes, because we are human – but not acceptable. Further, we should agree that we cannot blame the other person for our choice to become get angry or aggressive. It’s time to rethink our habit to attack.

Interestingly, losing our cool does not usually happen in a vacuum. In a conversation, it is up to each of us to keep an eye on the tempo. It is also our responsibility to have in place an agreed upon process for dealing with the possibility of losing it.

Complaining responsibly is about getting this fundamental ground rule understood before we start. Now, of course, I could be wrong about this; but after much contemplation and 51 years of NOT living by this rule, I believe that this is the way forward for me. It is what I like, and how I desire to be treated. Losing our cool and trying to convert each other are closely linked, I think. As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt”.  The more familiar we are to each other, the more we seem to want to convert the other. So then maybe it is more that “Contempt breeds familiarity” – i.e., conformity and lack of diversity.

The Rethink Agreements and the six rules of engagement (see Ch 5) have been designed to allow us to prepare for our aggressive failures, and to catch each other before we lose it. By defining and detailing our “plot” or Rethink Agreements, we set our course for our future failures and successes together.

What is your plot? Mine is to convert my concepts by incorporating your feedback, so that we may reach an agreement and a possible solution – without losing my cool or yours.

Compromised Relationship: It is all very well to say we shouldn’t get angry or lose our cool but sometimes, if we are pushing each other’s boundaries of understanding, we can push too hard and risk compromising ourselves and the relationship. At this point, we need to be prepared for such a failure and have an agreed method to dissipate or moderate such behavior before or when it happens so that we come back to diagram 2. By agreeing that aggression or losing our cool is understandable but not acceptable, we can develop tools to deal with this. Trying to be rational during this period when we are in the black zone is not very easy, so it is best for us to be aware of the signs that we are heading for a compromised situation, and deal with the signs and our behavior before we lose it further.

An Ideal Relationship Moderated by the Rethink Perfect Counterbalance


What is wrong with this?
“I am sorry I got angry, it is just that time of the month!”
“I am sorry I got angry, it was because of my testosterone!”

They are both unacceptable to me as an apology for aggression.
I dare say they would not be acceptable to a Judge Judy either.

Because both people are failing to be accountable for their actions.
What would be acceptable to me is if both took responsibility for their actions.
“I am sorry I got angry. I chose aggression to deal with my frustrations rather than a more constructive action. I would like to get an agreement on helping me act more constructively next time I get frustrated and possibly help me find a way for me to avoid getting frustrated in the first place.”

The reply would go something like “Yeah and I am sorry that I did not help you when I noticed that you started to use demanding language. But like you say let’s get some agreements on how we help each other out of such compromising behaviour. Habits that we may have picked up over our life time and now it is time to break these destructive habits”

To me, these apologies are far more responsible than the first one. I believe that most people have given up with regards using apology to resolve disputes or most likely were brought up by parents that never or rarely apologised to them. Properly crafted apologies on both sides can really help a relationship and bring confidence to each other that the same behaviour is less likely to occur but at the same time not expecting perfection.

I think that the giving and accepting of poor and unacceptable apologies could be even more destructive than no apology at all.

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