I’ve been a preacher for 8 years and a member of a school board for 6 years. Before that I spent 5 years managing retail operations for a convenience store chain and 5 years in youth ministry. Needless to say, I’ve heard my fair share of complaints.
I’ve also dismissed my fair share of complaints. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes not. Occasionally the complaint itself was legit but I dismissed it because I didn’t like the way it was given or the person giving it. Sorry. That’s just the truth. Others who regularly hear complaints will tell you the same thing. Most complaints don’t survive the end of the phone call or email.
If you want to be heard there’s a right way to go about it. So here’s a few tips I came up with this morning on the drive in to work. They apply regardless of whether you’re complaining to your preacher or the anonymous store manager down the street. Use them and you have a much better chance of being heard, and more importantly, getting something done about it.
- Make them infrequently. Folks that complain all the time quickly get labeled as habitual complainers. Once you get that label nothing you say will be taken seriously. It will be dismissed with a quick “Oh that’s just Russ, he’s always fussing about something.” So think before you speak. Weigh the complaint and make sure it’s worth saying something in the first place. It sounds ironic, but those who complain the least are heard the most.
- Get involved. This one primarily applies to churches and non-profits but there might be some carryover for retail. A complaint carries significantly more weight if its given from someone who’s involved. For example, if someone is complaining about our volunteer system in the children’s ministry my first question is “Are they currently volunteering in the children’s ministry?” If not, I ain’t listening. Well, I’m listening but I’m probably not going to do anything about it. Involvement lends credibility.
- Don’t exaggerate. You may have a legitimate issue. If so, let it stand on it’s own merit. Don’t try to make it more legitimate by exaggerating things. As soon as someone starts using words like “always” and “never” I get a little skeptical. Your complaint may be very important but don’t go Chicken Little on me. It doesn’t work. And please, please, please leave “they” out of it. Wait a minute. This one is important enough for it’s own number.
- Leave “they” out of it. You don’t know who “they” is? Neither do I but they are always upset about something, agree completely with the person complaining and are on the verge of storming out. “They” get involved in the complaint with comments like this… “Well, I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are plenty more and you know what they are saying?! If you don’t something about this I’m afraid they’ll leave! They are really upset!” When I ask who exactly “they” are I get an equally vague response. “Oh they don’t want me to use their names but trust me, they are very concerned about this issue.” Please stop. Own your complaint. If others agree with you share their names so we can actually talk to them.
- Don’t make it personal. The quickest way to not be heard is to attack the character of the person you’re complaining to. Stick to the issue. I know that’s hard because sometimes the person is the issue. But fair or unfair, if the one you’re speaking to feels like it’s a personal attack they’ll stop listening and start defending. When that happens your complaint gets lost in an argument.
Ok, full disclosure. I don’t do a great job of following these when I’m the complainer. But speaking from the other side, I promise you these five tips will go a long way in gaining an audience with someone who can actually help. Because when someone comes to me that rarely complains, is an active worker, owns their issue and states it reasonably without exaggerating or making it personal… I’m listening.