Anatomy of a Complaint

By Chris Chittenden

When should we complain? After all, not everything turns out the way that we expect and given that we are social beings, more often than not, other people will be involved in the non-fulfilment of those expectations.

When expectations are not fulfilled and others are involved, human beings tend to act in one of two ways. The first option is to not say anything to the person who we feel has aggrieved us, but whinge privately to ourselves or others about what has gone wrong. The ultimate outcome of such behaviour is resentment, a lessening of trust and the disintegration of the relationship with the other person.

The second action that we can take is to complain to the person who we perceive has done us some harm. The purpose of complaining is to nominally redress the perceived situation but at a deeper level it is to take care of our dignity and our identity. The reason for this lies in the stories we generate about ourselves if we do not complain. These stories can be that we are not as worthwhile nor as important as others, hence they have ignored us. By complaining, we take some action that says "Here I am. I am worthwhile. I am asking that you do this to redress the damage you have done to me." We take some control of our situation and as a result minimise or negate any negative emotions that might arise if we took no action.

Complaining can also enhance our relationships because by complaining effectively we can take care of not only our own dignity but also the dignity of the person to whom we are complaining. In other words, we can build a better way of interacting with others.

We need to stress that, in our interpretation, complaining is not whinging but rather a well defined sequence that allows for clarity to be gained in regard to the what has occurred in the context of a promise and the making of a clear and more forceful request should that promise not have been kept.

The first thing to consider before complaining to someone is "Have they broken a promise or commitment to me?" In order to legitimately complain, we believe that a promise should have been made. We claim that it is not reasonable to complain about an outcome simply because our expectations were not met. A complaint should relate to an agreed outcome that has not been achieved. After all, if a promise has not been made, the other person may not even realise that we had any expectations in the first place.

In organisations, promises can be implied (and explicit) with the acceptance of a certain role within that organisation. For example, a position description will set out the responsibilities for a role and this will imply that certain promises are made by the person taking that position. Key Performance Indicators are the focus of many performance management systems today and are a more explicit way of making organisational promises.

If you believe a promise has been broken and a complaint is warranted, we recommend that you follow these steps.

Firstly, declare to the person that you have a complaint to make. This creates a context in which the person will understand that you are making a complaint. "I have a complaint to make to you"

Next, declare that the other person made a promise to you - "You promised to do ‘A’ in ‘X’ time." This provides the other person with the space to agree or deny that they had made any commitment to you. If they claim they had not made a commitment in the first place then this opens up a different conversation about the any misunderstanding that may have taken place. On reflection you may also find that you had not been clear in your request or actively listened for the request to be accepted. Remember, only when someone accepts your request do they make a promise to you.

If they do acknowledge they had made a promise to you, then you can proceed to the second stage which is to declare the promise has not been fulfilled - "You did not fulfil your promise". This is where it is critical to include a time frame when making a request. No time frame leaves you in a position where the other person can always legitimately say they had not got round to doing what you have requested yet. This declaration also allows the other person to indicate that they had done what had been asked if they had done so and you had not been aware of their actions. Again this provides the space for the other person to take care of their dignity in the conversation.

If they agree they did not meet their commitment then it is important to indicate the outcome of the broken promise. This step is often neglected but it sets up a critical context for the next step, which is making a new request. Potential outcomes from a broken promise include damage to the relationship, impacts on trust, financial loss, lost opportunity or concerns about identity. For example, "Your lack of fulfilment suggests to me that I can’t rely on you. As a result, the following has happened - consequence ‘A’, consequence ‘B’, consequence ‘C’ etc."

The final step of a complaint is for you to take some further action to address the breakdown caused by the broken promise. This takes the form of a new request that may well be more insistent than the initial request. For example, "I insist that you do the following - Action ‘A’, Action ‘B’ etc". Be sure to listen for acceptance of your request.

A well thought out complaint will minimise the damage done to you and your relationship with another through a broken promise. Hopefully, it will also minimise future damage as the people around you begin to understand what it means to make a promise and how they can minimise the complaints made to them by managing their promises in a more effective manner.

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© 1996 & 2001 Chris Chittenden