Many workplaces have become breeding grounds for complaint and blame. Behind every complaint is an unmet need or expectation. Often the person voicing the complaint does not own the conversational tools to express their need in a healthy or clear way. Complaining has become a comfort zone that is tolerated and even accepted. When nobody is willing to change the conversation, nobody wins.
Comfort zones convey the illusion of “safety”. But when complaint is allowed to continue, other negative communications sprout. To move the conversation forward requires tools to shift difficult interactions; Tools that the leader teaches and applies in order to:
- Set clear expectations of behavior that will and will not be tolerated
- Help team members ask for what they need in appropriate and constructive ways
- Cultivate an environment where it is safe to ask for help and offer help; and where team members are willing to freely do so.
The first tool a leader must use is that of modeling. Others will know that the leader expects honest communication, not perfection, when he or she models the way. For example, tell your team when you’ve made a mistake or when you’re unsure of something, and then engage them in the problem-solving dialogue. It is important for employees to experience their leader as real, human – even vulnerable. What a powerful way to foster trust, respect, and commitment. And, you’ll also model personal responsibility, which is sadly missing from many workplaces today.
Below are 3 ways that you can minimize the ‘complain and blame’ game and raise the expectation of honest, clear, and accountable dialogue.
- Make clear requests for what you want and need
Start by raising your own awareness. Pay attention to the things you hear yourself complaining about, to yourself and others. Write down your complaint and read it aloud to yourself. Then, look underneath the complaint by asking what it is that you were expecting or hoping for that did not happen.
Example, I notice myself complaining, “I’m tired of our meetings never starting on time.” What’s really going on under my complaint is that I feel disrespected because starting late wastes my time. What I want is to feel that you value my time, and I need you to work with me to start our meetings at the designated time. My request becomes: “It’s important to me that we start our meetings at the agreed upon time. Would you be willing to work with me on that?”
I changed my complaint, “I’m tired of our meetings never starting on time”, to a more empowered statement; a statement that clearly expresses my need, is honest, and asks for buy-in from the other.
Think through ways to express your needs using clear, non-judgmental language. Take personal responsibility by using I-language, such as
“I have a request…”
“I would like…”
“I need for us to…”
Be intentional about not using You-language, which may be met with defensiveness, justification, or excuses. For example, don’t start your request with “You need to…” “You shouldn’t…” “You don’t…”
- Be Specific & Succinct
Practice succinctness. People tend to pay more attention to communication that is direct, succinct, and to the point. Prior to meetings, presentations, and other communication forums, spend a few minutes silently asking yourself or reminding yourself:
- What is my point? What are the main things I want to communicate here?
- How can I best communicate my needs, clearly and succinctly? What words will I use? What words will I be mindful NOT to use?
- What do I want to get out of this communication? What’s the goal here?
Practice specificity. Being specific AND succinct can sometimes feel mutually exclusive. In an effort to be succinct or to use fewer words, I might say, “That was a great meeting.” However, that really doesn’t convey much about my true thoughts to my listener. Being specific AND succinct might be, “I appreciate how we bounced ideas off each other in that meeting.” This increases confidence in both the speaker and the listener.
- Shhhh. Listen. Shhhh.
I’m referring to hearing the other – empathic listening. Empathic listening means shedding our preconceived ideas, assumptions, and judgments. It means listening for the purpose of hearing, receiving, and understanding the human being who is speaking to you. Not for the purpose of providing “fix-it” advice, reassurance, or problem-solving. Philosopher Martin Buber describes this quality of listening:
“In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face, that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.”
When we listen empathically, we notice body language (theirs & your own), we hear mood, intention, emotion, and what may be left unsaid. The ability to momentarily set the task-at-hand aside for the sake of deepening the relationship builds trust and creates connection – required ingredients for an organization of engaged employees.