Try a Game of Don’t Complain

Will Bowen, as a high performing sales executive, attempted an experiment just over 15 years ago. In a talk to 250 people he encouraged the listeners to take on a challenge. The challenge was to try to not complain for 21 days straight. In his life, he saw that complaining was almost as common as breathing. He also realized that it did nothing positive for either the complainer or those around them. He asked himself and encouraged his listeners to consider, “If venting made us happier, then wouldn’t the biggest complainers also be the happiest people?”

Bowen provided those striving to become complaint free with wrist bands. He suggested that each time a participant caught themselves in a complaint they were to move the wrist band from one arm to the other while resetting their count back to zero. His challenge caught on and has since rippled around the world with over 15,000,000 having participated to date. Bowen continues to encourage his complaint free challenge and wrote a book, A Complaint Free World. In it, he writes, “Complaining is draining and unfulfilling, and it makes you feel agitated and even defensive.” Deep down we know complaining results in just pain and no purposeful gain. Bowen properly points out, “You have never complained anyone, including yourself into positive change.” No one wants to be known as the biggest complainer in the office. It’s not the leading strength listed on our resumes. As Frank Perdue noted, “No one ever complained their way to the top.”

In fact, it’s the opposite. Our attitudes are contagious. They spread to those around us. If we’re positive, we bring out the best in those around us. If we’re negative, we drag others down. Dylan Minor a researcher from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business conducted a study showing that colleagues within a twenty-five square foot radius of a high performer boosted their own performance by 15%. Unfortunately, those working around a toxic performer had their productivity drop by 30%. The negative nellies with their cacophony of complaints created a big drop in performance not just in themselves but in their co-workers, too. In separate research, Kim Cameron, a University of Michigan professor, mapped workers by “relational energy.” Relational energy is a measure of how someone can influence others positively as opposed to draining them. This measure predicted performance four times better than other methods. It was the key ingredient in organizational influence. Where we can motivate and energize others, we’re more valuable.

A downside of complaining is that focus remains on the problem, not seeking solutions. Bowen writes, “We are so busy focusing on what is wrong in the world, as evidenced by our complaints, that we are perpetuating these problems. We are obsessed with what is wrong. We complain about anything and everything, and as a result we keep focusing on our problems.” Bowen reminds us that being around complainers becomes tiresome, “The squeaky wheel may get the grease. But if it squeaks too much, it ends up getting replaced.” Better to replace our complaining before we’re replaced. A truth bomb I was blasted with years ago is the idea that we only complain about things that we can actually do something about. We don’t complain about the laws of physics. If we can’t control something, complaints are pointless. Jack Canfield writes in The Success Principles, “complaining means you have a reference point for something better that you would prefer but that you are unwilling to take the risk of creating. Either accept that you are making the choice to stay where you are, take responsibility for your choice, and stop complaining…or…take the risk of creating your life exactly the way you want it.” Canfield considers complaining as the antithesis of empowering. Complaining is a form of cowering. We’re giving up and not trying. Complaining is an excuse.

Patrick Bet-David wrote Your Five Next Moves. In it he references a 2005 article published in the National Science Foundations that suggests the average person has between twelve thousand and sixty thousand thoughts per day. If we’re awake for 16 hours a day, that’s 960 minutes. According to this study, we’re having between 12 and 60 thoughts a minute. You’d think we’d all be Einstein with that much thinking going on. That’s a minimum of one thought every five seconds. Our thoughts become our actions. Earl Nightingale noted that “We become what we think about.” Even more shocking than the prevalence of our pondering is that the study suggests that 80% of our thoughts are negative. Apparently, there’s a lot of sewage swimming around our skulls. It’s no wonder some of these negative thoughts turn into daily complaints. In fact, during his efforts, Bowen learned that the average person complains between fifteen and thirty times daily.

Since negative thoughts are such a part of who we are, it’s natural that complaining is an extension of these. Bowen observes, “complaining is so much a part of who we are, it’s difficult to recognize what is and is not a complaint.” Before we can seek to reduce our complaining we need to understand what a complaint is. A complaint is expressing discontent or pain at something or someone. It is more than a statement of fact. It is a statement plus an emotion. A typical component of complaints is that they are an expression of “unfairness” being experienced by the complainer. Complaints represent perceived injustices. Complaints follow from us not getting something we want or expect. Complaints are not the same as processing information. Sometimes we think out loud. If we’re talking through a problem or sharing our feelings about a circumstance, this isn’t necessarily complaining. It can just be verbally expressing perspective or statement of facts. It becomes a complaint when there’s a negative emotion/value attached to it.

Why do we complain?

If complaining doesn’t get us anywhere and dispirits those around us, why do we do it? Bowen provides a memorable acronym which provides five explanations for why we complain. GRIPE. Get attention, Remove responsibility, Inspire envy, Power, and Excuse poor performance.

Psychologist Robin Kowalski in an article in the Psychological Bulletin noted, “Many complaints involve attempts to elicit particular interpersonal reactions from others, such as sympathy or approval.” A reason we complain is to draw attention to ourselves. Bowen writes, “People will often complain simply because they want attention from others and can’t think of another, more positive means of getting the notice they crave.” He goes further noting, “What this type of complainer is really saying is ‘Hey, notice me! I want to talk to you. I want to get your attention, and I’m completely lost as to what to say other than to gripe about something.’” Bowen points out that, apparently, in Chinese, the word complain is represented by two characters. One represents ego and the other hug. In Chinese, complain translates to hugging your ego. When we complain to get attention, it’s like we’re hugging our ego. When we’re interacting with someone that is complaining to get attention, Bowen suggests we ask, “What’s going well for you?” This question will redirect their attention from their problems to something more constructive.

A second reason we complain according to the GRIPE acronym is to remove responsibility. We complain in order to put ourselves in the position of being the victim. The world is set up against us so our refusal or inability to act may be justified. When we complain about all the things we can’t control we turn our attention away from the things we can control. We blame outside forces while ignoring our internal capabilities. An individual that’s complaining to remove responsibility Bowen writes, “seeks to build a case for his or her inability to achieve by painting a hopeless picture as to the outcome. ‘There’s no use,’ the complainer is saying. ‘So I’m not going to try.’”

A great example of an area in our lives where we complain to both get attention and absolve ourselves of responsibility is health. Bowen writes, “Poor health is one of the most common complaints people voice. People complain about their health to play the sick role so as to derive sympathy and attention and to avoid events they are averse to, such as adopting a healthier lifestyle.”

Michael Brown, author of The Presence Process, invites us to consider that the word blame can be understood as be lame. When we complain with blame, we’re actually being lame. We’re giving up. Bowen writes, “They want to be removed from the responsibility of creating a solution and want you to validate this position. When someone complains to Remove responsibility, ask, ‘If it was possible, how might you do it?’” If they have no answer, then offer, “I have faith in your ability to figure out a way to accomplish this.” This type of complaining abdicates responsibility for acting. The complainer needs to be reminded or encouraged to recognize their own abilities to influence improvement. The late and great NCAA Basketball coach, John Wooden, posed a question, “Why is it that so many nonattainers are quick to criticize, question, and belittle the attainers?”

A third reason we complain is to inspire envy. We complain about what someone isn’t in order to suggest something good about ourselves. Bowen observes, “A person will complain about someone else as a means of saying that he or she does not have the perceived character flaw being complained about. ‘My boss is so stupid’ is a backhanded way of saying ‘I’m smarter than my boss, and if I was in charge, things would be better.’” When we’re using our complaint to inspire envy, we’re complaining not to try to change something but to get others to validate and appreciate us. Inspiring envy is what’s at the root of gossip. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted, “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” We gossip about others in order to feel smug and superior to them. Bowen writes, “Gossips are not speaking to share information; they are pointing out what they perceive to be another’s negative traits so as to appear superior by comparison.” Bowen suggests that when we encounter this type of complainer, we should complement them for possessing the trait opposite that about which they’re complaining.

A fourth purpose of complaining is to achieve power. This type is a big part of negative campaigning which, unfortunately, is at the heart of our current political environment. Politicians campaign less on their strengths and vision and are focused instead of drawing attention to the bad, stupid, and evil done by the opposing party. Bowen writes, “complaining is a very effective means of garnering power.” The counter to this approach is to not engage. Avoid being drawn into these types of conversations. If someone is complaining in order to obtain power, we’re encouraged to suggest to the complainer that they should have this conversation directly with the person about which they’re complaining. Bowen writes, “When two gorillas are fighting, it’s best to stay out of the jungle. Refuse to take sides.”

A final reason we complain is to excuse something we’ve done. Whereas, complaining to remove responsibility is using complaint as a tactic to avoid action, when we complain to excuse poor performance, we’re doing so to justify our errors. Bowen points out that “a person complaining to excuse his or her poor performance complains about circumstances after the fact to explain away failure.” Legendary US College Football coach, Lou Holtz, captures this type of griping giving us the quote, “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it.” The suggested response to those using complaints as an excuse is to ask them how they will act differently in the future.

The varied reasons that are behind why we complain may help explain the prevalence of it. Independent of what the motivation is behind a complaint, the commonality according to Bowen is that, “When we complain, we are saying, ‘Something is wrong.’” An underlying sense of dissatisfaction drives the complaint. The dissatisfaction isn’t wrong. It can actually be helpful. The discomfort associated with being dissatisfied is intended to incent action. The dissatisfaction should motivate us to move. Unfortunately, complaining keeps us in the zone of whining about what can’t be done, what can’t be changed. We want to use our discomfort not to complain, but to do. We must move our minds to a desired destination. Bowen writes, “Our focus must be on what we want to occur rather than on what we don’t want to happen.” Writer, Maya Angelou states bluntly, “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude, don’t complain.” Again, complaining prevents us from progress towards what we want by keeping us pointed on what we don’t want.

Mark and Bonita Thompson write in Admired, “Most people can give great detail about the problems they are facing. But it’s a rare person who can be equally detailed about what success really means—whether it’s success in their next job, next staff meeting, or even their next email.” It’s easier to talk about what’s wrong than to know where to go. We’re quick to complain, but it is difficult to prioritize. We profess problems while not knowing how to prioritize. Our complaints can be caused by feeling like we don’t have control or a compass. It’s not reasonable to expect our circumstances to change without us doing something to contribute to the change.

James Allen wrote As a Man Thinketh. Allen notes that our minds are like a garden that can be cared for or left alone. In either case, the garden will grow. If useful things are planted and tended to, then useful things will grow and the garden will be beautiful. If it is left alone, weeds will take over and things will be useless and ugly. If we’re letting our negative thoughts take over and become complaints, it’s like we’re leaving our gardens unattended. Undertaking Bowen’s challenge is a first step towards tilling your garden. With awareness, we can slowly try to question our feelings before acting on them. Ok, I’m upset. Am I clear about why I’m upset? Are these feelings helpful? Do I want to solve the problem or just be validated? We can work to be honest with ourselves. Do you want to take action to make things better? Are you prepared to do the work? If we want to solve the situation, will complaining help? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? In what way am I contributing to this problem? Are there things that I may not know? Are you willing to try to explore other perspectives of the situation? Is there an alternate point of view you haven’t considered? Can you get curious before you complain? Is there a better way? Ask yourself what if you are 100% responsible for the circumstances in which you find yourself, what would your next step be to reduce the problem?

As straightforward as the challenge sounds, it’s surprisingly difficult. This is not a challenge, Bowen noted, that we should be able to accomplish in three weeks or even a month. Bowen notes that for most people that pursue this honestly, it takes four to eight months to reach 21 days in a row without complaining. Many of us become stuck at ground zero for a long time. This is ok. If nothing else, we’re developing awareness of the frequency of our complaining. Bowen writes, “This challenge opened up my eyes to how much I complained. It was really a process of becoming aware of my thoughts and words. We’re likely to wear out the bracelets we’re using as reminders before we succeed in going complaint free for three weeks. And, yes, it is quite likely that you will complain about struggling to not complain. If that’s the case, remind yourself of G.K. Chesterton’s line, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Trying to stop something that has been a perpetual part of our days, won’t be easy. We will struggle to succeed. We will trip on our toes. We’ll make mistakes.

One way to customize the challenge is to try to have a complaint free meeting. Alternately, it may be easier (and more amusing) to start your challenge by not looking at your own complaints but those of others. Bowen offers that complaining is like bad breath in that we’re much more sensitive to smelling it from others than we do from ourselves. We will see others complaining before we see ourselves doing it. If we seek to pay attention, we’ll start to see the prevalence of it. An extension of developing awareness of complaints in others is then categorizing the complaint you’ve heard. Which of the five buckets does the complaint belong? GRIPE. Then, as we transition our attention to catch ourselves complaining, we won’t be so frustrated and disheartened when we find ourselves doing it so frequently. With the awareness of how pervasive complaining is with others, we can, hopefully, develop more patience with the process for ourselves. We won’t be desperate to knock-off the challenge in 21 days. We’ll accept that it will take several months. Good luck with your own game of don’t complain.