Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Forever Complaining

We pride ourselves on our ability to criticize. We believe that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. We believe that we must communicate whatever is passing through our minds or our guts… openly, honestly and shamelessly.

On the other hand, we are not allowed to say many things about certain people. The era of open communication has run aground on the shoals of political correctness… what with the thought police and the bigotry patrols.

Thus, for having gone to one extreme we find ourselves facing the other extreme. For having gone too far in expressing exactly what is on our minds and for no longer moderating our utterances in the interest of sustaining a conversation, we are now facing a repressive regime of mind control which proscribes an increasing number of words and thoughts. The conflict does not produce balance. It produces drama. Most people are thoroughly tired of it. Yet, they continue to do it.

In the business world, we see a special manifestation of our libertarian speech codes. Business executives want to express themselves openly, honestly and shamelessly. They want to get it off their chest. They want to express themselves. They refuse to keep their feelings to themselves. They have high levels of emotional intelligence, and what good is your emotional intelligence if  you are not sharing your feelings?

Our psycho overlords have told us that it’s good for business. And that it’s good for your mental health. It’s a twofer… go for it.

In practice, the results are less than salutary. This postmodern therapy ethos has turned us into a nation of complainers. You might think that this is limited to interpersonal communication around the brunch table. You would be wrong. It rears its ugly head in the business world, where, as consultant Peter Bregman reports, executives have caught the whining bug. They complain all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but for far too much of the time. It must damage productivity.

Bregman takes a cue from famed executive coach Marshall Goldsmith:

My friend, the legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith,   interviewed more than 200 of his clients and what he discovered matched previous research he read, but found hard to believe: “a majority of employees spend 10 or more hours per month complaining — or listening to others complain — about their bosses or upper management. Even more amazing, almost a third spend 20 hours or more per month doing so.”

And that doesn’t even include the complaining they do about their peers and employees. Which would be hard to believe if not for the fact that, if you pay attention to what you experience during your day, you’d find it’s pretty accurate.

Imagine the productivity gain of reducing all those complaining hours.

Imagine it, indeed. For the record Goldsmith recommends that we find a new rule, one that tells us that, just because you feel it, you do not have to say it. You do not have to share it. There is a special virtue in keeping your counsel. In keeping it to yourself. Or better, in choosing the right time and the right place and the right circumstances to share it. Evidently, this runs counter to the therapy culture directive, that prescribes oversharing as the royal road to business productivity. Thankfully the business coaches understand the utter folly of this proposal.

Bregman explains why it feels good to complain… which is an important point. People would not be venting as much as they do if it did not feel good. As it happens, lots of things feel good while not being good. A grand paradox, to say the least, but one that we ought to keep in mind. Momentary relief of tension feels good. The proof is in the outcome. Bregman explains very well why complaining is addictive.

Here’s what happens: Someone annoys us. We’re dissatisfied with how they’re behaving. Maybe we’re angry, frustrated, or threatened. Those feelings build up as energy in our bodies, literally creating physical discomfort (that’s why we call them feelings — because we actually, physically, feel them).

When we complain about someone else, the uncomfortable feelings begin to dissipate because complaining releases the pent up energy. That’s why we say things like “I’m venting” or “I’m blowing off steam” (But, as we’ll see in a moment, that dissipation doesn’t just release the energy, it spreads it, which actually makes it grow).

Additionally, when we complain to people who seem to agree with us — and we almost always complain to people who seem to agree with us — we solicit comfort, camaraderie, connection, support, and justification, which counteracts the bad feelings with some fresh, new good ones.

Complaining changes the balance of negative/positive energy and, for a brief moment at least, we feel better. It’s actually a pretty reliable process. Addictive even.

Which is the problem (beyond even the wasted time): Like just about all addictions, we’re feeding the spin of a destructive, never-ending cycle. The release of pressure — the good feeling — is ephemeral. In fact, the more we complain, the more likely the frustration, over time, will increase.

Why is this so? Bregman analyzes the problem by observing that we often complain about someone who is not there, who we don't want to address. Complaining is not about solving problems; it's about venting. In this, it seriously resembles therapy… especially the kind that encourages us to express our feelings but discourages us from doing anything to change the circumstances that have elicited the complaint. I would happily recommend that Bregman's analysis counts among the best explanations for why so much therapy fails.

Here’s why: when we release the pent up energy by complaining, we’re releasing it sideways. We almost never complain directly to the person who is catalyzing our complaints, we complain to our friends and families. We’re not having direct conversations to solve a problem, we’re seeking allies. We’re not identifying actions that could help, we’re, almost literally, blowing off steam.

Seeking allies while not addressing the problem. Well stated. We complain to sympathizers, even to empathizers. 

Bregman continues:

Complaining creates a number of dysfunctional side effects (again, beyond the time wasted): It creates factions, prevents or delays — because it replaces — productive engagement, reinforces and strengthens dissatisfaction, riles up others, breaks trust, and, potentially, makes the complainer appear negative. We become the cancer we’re complaining about; the negative influence that seeps into the culture.

Worse, our complaining amplifies the destructiveness and annoyance of the initial frustration about which we’re complaining.

Note the cogency of this analysis. In a nation of whiners we tend to factionalize. We avoid engagement, we increase dissatisfaction and amplify the original problem. When you do not solve a problem, it festers. The worse it gets the more you need affirmation that you are right in recognizing the problem. Unfortunately, you can easily recognize a problem without know how to solve it.

Think about it: someone yells in a meeting. Then you go to the next meeting (where no one is yelling) and you complain about the person who just yelled. Now other people, who weren’t at the initial meeting, feel the impact of the yelling and get upset about it too. Encouraged by their support, your brief, momentary release transforms into righteous indignation and, becoming even more incensed, you experience the initial uncomfortable feelings all over again.

He adds:

Complaining is a violent move to inaction. It replaces the need to act. If instead of complaining, we allowed ourselves to feel the energy without needing to dissipate it immediately — which requires what I call emotional courage — then we could put that energy to good use. We could channel it so it doesn’t leak out sideways.

In other words, let the uncomfortable feeling you have — the one that would otherwise lead you to complain — lead you to take a productive action.

If we apply this to feeling-based therapy, we note that venting feels good and makes people believe that they are making progress. And yet, given that complaining is a move toward inaction, the problem does not go away. It gets worse. And we continue to feel ashamed of ourselves for failing to act.

The solution, as Bregman states it, is to take a productive action and to address the problem. If the situation is that bad, stand up and show some courage… though do not do it in a way that threatens and demeans.

In effect, that is the problem. How many people today know how to address an issue without making it into a confrontation? How many know how to offer constructive advice without threatening the other person?

Given our experience with therapy and its culture, the answer must be: not very many of us.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: How many people today know how to address an issue without making it into a confrontation? How many know how to offer constructive advice without threatening the other person?

It certainly is difficult, and skill is needed, and most people have different abilities to hear feedback at the best of times, and the more psychological pain or discomfort we're in, the more we can't hear any feedback unless it mirrors exactly what we're feeling. Marshall Rosenberg, author of nonviolent communication, might say that we take care with stating facts and direct observations, and avoid interpretations when we're describing things other people are saying or doing that we don't like.

The main problem with interpretations might be that they are debatable, so people get stuck on conflicting interpretations. Rosenberg would say you shouldn't hear criticism or complaint, but listen for what needs are being expressed behind the words, and help bring the person back to awareness of what they need in that moment. In contrast labeling someone as complaining is a defensive attempt to dismiss their words as unimportant, and making them feel further misunderstood and isolated.