Life With Fewer Complaints

Complaints are a distraction from what we can do to better ourselves. I save them for people who can actually help me.

Sometime long ago, I learned to live mostly without complaint. Maybe that was because my father told me, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Or maybe I learned that school administrators were fairly powerless against my adversaries. Or maybe it was because I had learned that complaining to people about their behavior triggers them into worse behavior than before. In the context of interpersonal relationships, I’ve learned to hold my complaints to myself and change my own behavior. In the context of business, I’ve learned to be the squeaky wheel.

When I was a boy, my parents had this power struggle over dinner time. My mom would ask my dad what time he’d be home for dinner. Mom would have it prepared for his arrival, but Dad was habitually late. If she didn’t have something ready when he came home, he’d be angry. She confronted him numerous times to no avail, no improvement. Then my mom decided that confrontation wasn’t working with a man who was quite possibly the world’s most advanced contrarian.

So she stopped complaining and greeted him with a smile when he came home. She found a way to have something ready for him when he got home, no matter the time. She adapted by changing her behavior. But something else happened. She changed the way she was perceived by Dad. It’s painful to be confronted for errors, and that pain registered in Dad. By changing her approach to dinner, she changed the response of the part of my Dad’s brain that registers pain and pleasure, the amygdala. A peace over dinner time ensued. Dad stopped being late because Mom had stopped being angry. She stopped complaining and the unwanted behavior stopped because she changed her own behavior.

I took that lesson to heart. I don’t complain to people about their behavior much anymore. I may state how I feel about it, but I don’t ask them to change their behavior. I may mention in passing that I will change my behavior, but mostly, I just change my behavior so that behavior I don’t like isn’t as profitable as it was before. I may even request collaboration, and this can often be the best solution.

Through many trials, I have learned that everyone is just doing the best that they can. There is no point in complaining to people about their behavior if they’re just doing the best that they can. I know how painful it is to receive criticism, so I withhold it from others for the sake of humanity. I try to frame my words so that they are suggestions, not commands. I ask myself often if I’m asking other people to change for me, even though I know they’re doing the best that they can. If I’m asking other people to change, then I change my language until I’m not asking them to change because that assumption is always there, that people are always doing the best they can.

We can split hairs on this point forever. Did he do the dastardly deed because he wanted to or because he lacked the agency to do better? When I say “agency” I mean having the capacity, the will, to do better. Sometimes it's a lack of skill or capacity. But the more I think about how people behave, the less interested I am in something called motivation. I’m not as concerned about why people are motivated to do what they do as I am about their lack of capacity to do better. So I assume a lack of skills or knowledge before malice when I’m dealing with difficult people. That’s another reason not to complain. There is no point in complaining to someone if they really don’t know how to do better. Besides, if someone could do better, he would.

In business, I don’t complain unless there is a clear sign that others could do better. In my day job, I won't complain about being asked to do something. I am honored by it. Jobs are hard to find these days, so I will work with honor by accepting whatever work comes my way and making it fit. I don’t complain about work. But if something is broken, then I let it be known to the people who have the power to fix it and let it go. I’ll work around it. I’ll find a way to deal with it.

I just had solar panels and a massive battery installed. One of the solar panels isn’t working. The battery isn’t working. The app that I use with my phone isn’t telling me everything that is going on as I would expect. So I complained to the people who are best able to fix that, the installers. I have a contract right to assert here, so I’m going to complain and I’m doing it nicely. No profanity, no insults, just the facts. Their job is already hard, so I make it easy for them to do their job by informing them, not insulting them. Besides, they’re human.

So I prioritize. I choose where I want to put my efforts. I am careful with my words for the people I’m dealing with and living with, they all have feelings. I collaborate where I can. I change my behavior when I can. I comport myself in such a way that I can sleep at night. I am mindful of the people in my life. I believe that love is letting other people grow to the greatest extent possible while doing no harm.

Write on.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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