Perhaps you have noticed that relationships are hard! Yet relationships are one of the most important parts of our lives. If you process and apply this quick fact I’m going to share, it will change your relationships.
Complaining isn’t the same thing as asking for what you want.
Complaining and asking for what you want are quite different from one another. Although sometimes, and let me emphasize sometimes, people understand what you want changed when you complain, the behaviors are not equivalent.
Imagine a person asks for what they want. What do they look like? How do they sound? Now imagine someone complains. How do they hold their body? Is their voice deep or high-pitched, soft, or loud? Contemplate in which situation someone is more likely to pray.
Consider in which scenario a person might find it easier to live out Ephesians 4:2 (NLT) which says, “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” There are differences, and when we ask for what we want rather than complain, we are much more likely to get our needs met and maintain the connection.
So, if it’s clearly more effective to avoid complaining, why do people keep doing it?
It’s important to note that complaining may produce some short-term benefits. When we engage in any good or bad behavior, we do it to feel better. When we look for the good in bad behavior, we’re looking for the “function in the dysfunction.” Once we identify the function, we can work to meet our need in a healthier way.
For example, if Tom complains that his wife, Vera, works too late, she may try to come home earlier the next week. This reinforces Tom’s behavior. What’s the function in the dysfunction? Though he complained (dysfunction), he got what he wanted (function) when Vera came home earlier. However, Vera may feel controlled and frustrated by her husband’s request.
Now that we’ve looked at the “function in the dysfunction,” how can Tom meet his need in a healthier way? If Tom prays, and then asks Vera to sit with him, looks her in the eye and shares that he misses her and wants to be connected, and then tells how her tardy behavior causes him to feel disconnected, Vera is much more likely to try to come home earlier because she feels desired and connected to him rather than controlled or in trouble.
Frequently, people try to ask for what they want, but when it fails to yield the desired outcome, complaints may start flying. But is complaining an effective technique that builds long-term connections?
No. And complaining often robs us of the peace we desperately desire. In Ephesians 4:3 (NLT), Paul tells us that it may take work but that we should do our part to fight for unity and peace. He writes, “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” Although we can see from the text that we should do the work to pursue peace, we still struggle!
First, let’s explore why people complain. And then we’ll investigate another option to consider!
People complain for different reasons. When we complain, we might feel powerful, right? Sometimes, if we raise our voice with our complaint, people respond by jumping up and coming to our aid. To an individual who feels disrespected, this is comforting. In some way, we feel seen and “respected.” But how do we feel later? We may observe distance in the relationship, noticing the person complete a task and slip away into another room. We may experience regret for our behavior but feel like it was our only option, like we’ve tried everything.
Some people may enjoy hearing themselves say snarky comments, or they might not have the skills to speak using skill. Regardless of the reason for complaining, it’s always an indicator that the person has moved to a negative space.
What’s a negative space? It’s the intangible mental space where we experience negative thoughts, feelings, and behavior. And all of us desperately desire to reside in a positive space with positive thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
When someone complains to us, we may get triggered to a negative space. But how do we feel when someone shares that they want to be closer to us? We often feel wanted which moves us toward a positive space. If we practice building skill, exploring why we are angry or want to complain, we can identify the connection point and communicate from there.
Learning to pray once I notice I’m in a negative space has been especially helpful and often enables me to reset.
Understanding our positive and negative space patterns can be useful in relationships with kids, friends, or at work, too. If your child says something disrespectful, it can be easy to snap back, “You’re so disrespectful, and I’m sick of it.” Instead, if we sit down and explain how we love to be connected and show that disrespectful comments get in the way of that relationship, we can build connection while expressing ourselves. (If you’re barking back, “Whose got time for this?”, I feel you! In the short-term, this takes more time, but in the long-term, you’re saving time! Your future self will thank you!)
It’s far easier to type these words than it is to implement this practice. We’re fighting our flesh. When we get triggered to a negative space, our thoughts become more pessimistic. But we can get there. We can stop ourselves from complaining. Instead, let’s ask for what we want.If you’d like to learn more about the positive and negative space, or Switch Theory, I unpack this and other concepts in my book, I Used to be ____. It’s available wherever books are sold!
Ashley Elliott is an author and speaker who devised and published a theory to help individuals gain insight to their personal thinking patterns that prevent them from reaching success in relationships at work and home. She is also a licensed counselor and coach who specializes in grief and communication. Additionally, she consults with business leaders to help increase employee engagement and retention. Compiling her counseling skills with over a decade of higher education teaching and leadership experience provides an engaging, interactive experience where learning feels fun! Check out her book and lots of free resources at chuckandashley.com.