The Discourse of Complaining


In my consulting work, I work with clients to solve problems. That, of course, means we have to clearly identify the problems, which, in turn, means I am guaranteed to spend time with people who are complaining. It seems natural that having problems would necessitate complaining, but when I get into it, I often get push back. They insist before we start that I promise not to let it turn into a "bitch and moan" session.

While I am not a fan of incessant whining, I would like to step up and defend complaining a bit. Complaining is important and has value, though obviously not in a vacuum. If all you do is complain, you don't get anywhere. But it's an important first step.

In graduate school I was led through an exercise and it started with two questions:

  1. What sort of things, were they to happen more in your [work, life, relationship…fill in the blank], would you experience as supportive of your effectiveness and development?
  2. And what sorts of things, were they to happen less for you in that context, would be supportive of your effectiveness and development?

That doesn't sound like complaining, does it? Effectiveness and development? Actually, it is. Sure, it's got a positive spin because it is focused on effectiveness and development, but it is still complaining. It's saying I want what I don't have right now, or I don't want things that are getting in the way. But being clear about what it is (either more of or less of) that drives effectiveness and development, is a critical piece. 

This is called the "discourse of complaining" (this is based on the work of Robert Kegan, by the way). Make sure you build it into your problem solving. Work on getting better at it. Complain more effectively. Work on being able to come up with more nuanced complaints that clarify your situation. When you do this, you'll be able to move onto the next discourse (the discourse of commitment). 

More on that later.