Hidden Requests: A Fresh Perspective on Complaints

From griping coworkers to whining children, it seems like everybody has something to moan about. What is behind all of these complaints? How do we transform this negative energy into something productive?

These questions come up frequently with my clients. Complaints are scary – they make you feel threatened, inadequate or defensive.  I encourage my clients to try to see complaints from a fresh perspective: behind every complaint is an unarticulated request.

Making requests is surprisingly difficult. Some people would rather stay stuck in a complaint,  remaining in a state of frustration and deprivation, than have to make a request and risk getting rejected.    Others attempt to make a request, but it comes out weak or unclear. In his book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, Chalmers Brothers explains that often, “we make really fuzzy and nebulous requests, allowing lots of room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding,” ultimately not leading to the result we really want.

We can also resent that we even have to make a request in the first place. Does this sound familiar…”How do you not inherently know what I want?  I shouldn’t have to make a request!” Brothers suggests that this comes from a mindset that confuses being right with being happy. He explains that often we feel that: “We shouldn’t have to ask the other person to change his or her behavior. […] And out of this position of ‘right-ness,’ we don’t make the requests and so don’t bring about what we want to bring about.”

Brothers emphasizes that we should “operate more out of the works/doesn’t work orientation and less out of the right/wrong orientation.” We should mute our concerns and put together productive and specific requests.

So how, in practice, do we make the transition from the right/wrong orientation to the works/doesn’t work orientation?

It all begins with discovering the request embedded behind every complaint. To help my clients do this, I lead an exercise where I have teams or small groups ask one person to let their complaints loose. The group should then uncover the as-of-yet unmade request and see if they can find solutions for it.

I did this exercise with the senior leadership team of a private school recently. The head of the science department complained that the school had moved locations. She used to have an easy commute on the train during which she graded papers, but she now drove to school every day. Driving was stressful, and the commute, she concluded, was killing her.

I asked her what she wanted or needed that she was not getting. There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, she told me that science teachers devote a lot of time to teaching students about how to be good to the environment. Spending two hours a day guzzling gas was inauthentic: she felt disconnected from her values.

Her request then was actually to herself. For two days a week, she would take the train and walk an extra quarter of a mile to school. She would start there and see how it went.

Once you know what your request is–and assuming that it is not to yourself–what is the best way to make it?

It is critical to formulate requests in a productive way. A proper request is specific and includes four elements:
• Saying exactly WHAT you want.
• Saying exactly WHEN you want it. (This tends to be the hardest part)
• Saying exactly FROM WHOM you want it.
• Saying exactly HOW you want it and stating your conditions of satisfaction.

Instead of saying that you would like to be considered for a raise, try, “I would like to be considered for a $10,000 increase to my base salary by the end of the year.” Instead of asking your child to clean up her room, say, “I would like you to put away all of the clothes in your room in the next twenty minutes before you watch TV.”

As we begin a New Year, I challenge you to switch from a right/wrong approach to a works/doesn’t work one. Instead of a operating from a defensive stance, waiting for someone to figure out what we want, lets get on the offense and make the request.

Here are three questions for reflection:

Do you make requests in your life? If not, what holds you back?
Can you find the request in a complaint you’ve been sitting with for some time?
Have you noticed that someone in your work or personal life has a consistent complaint? What can you do to help them find the request?

Learn more about the power of questions through my work in communications training

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