Friday, January 24, 2020

11 Phrases to Effectively Respond to Complaining

Whether you're a teacher or a principal, or have another role as an educator, you probably have interactions on a daily basis that involve complaints coming your way. The complaints might come from students, parents, or colleagues. These interactions can be difficult to handle and can really be a drain on energy and progress.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting every time someone brings up a problem, that it's unhelpful complaining. There are definitely complaints, or concerns, that bring light to legitimate issues and the messenger has an honest desire to make things better. Complaints can help us grow and improve.

And then there are complaints that have other, less desirable motives. I think we've all observed unhelpful complaining behaviors. Some people seem to find fault in everything and everyone and cast negative energy upon anyone who will listen. Blaming and complaining are often behaviors used to avoid personal responsibility.

But regardless of the intentions of the complaint, how can we best handle them when they come our way? How can we treat the person with dignity and respect, while still maintaining healthy boundaries? Here are some phrases I've used that have been helpful to me. 

1. "Go on. I'm listening."

It's never helpful for someone to feel like they aren't being heard or understood. So don't be dismissive or uncaring about a complaint when it is expressed. You may feel it is unfair or unhelpful or not a big deal, but hear the person out. Ask lots of questions. Try to understand where they are coming from before you draw conclusions.

2. "Let me see if I got that."

After the person shares what's on their mind, pause to gather your thoughts and then paraphrase what you've heard them say. Sometimes we jump right into "fix-it" mode without really listening to the other person or checking to see if we actually have all of the information. 

3. "Is there more?"

After you paraphrase your understanding back to the person, you can ask again, "Did I get that?" Listen to their response. After it seems that part is fully understood, ask "Is there more?" See what else they might share. You want to really explore what they are communicating and make sure they fully express their thoughts.

4. "I can see you feel..."

This phrase is essential. Help the person recognize the emotion they are feeling in the situation. I can validate their perception of the facts of the situation all day, but the real issue is often how the person feels. Something has bumped into their feelings and until they have the opportunity to express that, no solution is going to be good enough. Often, when they express their feelings and feel heard, the original complaint turns out to be a non-issue. After you make an attempt to name the feeling, check in with them again. "I can see you feel angry/sad about this situation. Is that right?"

5. "What would you like to see happen next?"

After you fully understand the problem and the feelings involved too, talk with the person about possible solutions. Ask them for feedback, "What would you like to see happen in this situation?" If they suggest there is something you can do to resolve it, just keep in mind it's okay to say no or explore other possibilities. Just because they want to see a certain thing happen doesn't mean it's wise, prudent, or fair. The leader may have to help make that decision.

6. "Thank you..."

Complaining can bring a surge of negative energy to an interaction. So after you listen and understand, one way to shift the energy is to complement the person who is bringing the complaint. "Thank you for sharing that perspective. I can see you love and care deeply for your child." 

7. "What did they say when you discussed this with them?"

One thing I always try to avoid is allowing people to skip the chain of command. For example, if a parent is complaining about a situation with a teacher, I will ask, "What did the teacher have to say when you made them aware of the problem?" Most of the time, they never talked with the teacher at all. 

8. "What steps have you taken to try to solve the problem?"

This is a good place to start with exploring possible solutions and reminding the person they have personal power and responsibility in this situation. When I'm working with students, they sometimes act as if there is 100% nothing they can do to solve the problem. They want someone or something outside of themselves to change without ever looking in the mirror. Of course, they can't control what's outside of them, even if they want to. And to be fair, plenty of adults can have this same type of unhealthy thinking.

9. "Does it make sense to discuss this problem more right now?"

Sometimes in meetings or in one-on-one situations, people want to discuss problems that no one who is currently in the conversation has the power to solve. For example, we might complain about issues that involve students, parents, other educators, state mandates, etc. But, let's keep the conversation focused on the people in the room. What are we going to do about this problem? If there is a need to partner with others in addressing the problem, invite them to the next meeting.

10. "I'm not comfortable..."

colleagues will complain/gossip about other colleagues to a third-party. This triangulation is not healthy and destroys culture. This question can help redirect the person back to the person they are complaining about. "I'm not comfortable discussing this person behind his or her back. I want you to know I would do the same for you. I value you and wouldn't allow someone to speak badly about you behind your back." Of course, if the person is reporting something that is unsafe, illegal, or harmful to kids that's a different type of conversation.

11. "I'm willing to discuss this with you however long it takes until we get this resolved."

When someone brings a sincere complaint about a situation, they may feel like they are being silenced or dismissed if they don't get the immediate response they wanted. But leaders want to stay in dialogue. Leaders want to stand firm on the ideas without becoming adversaries with the individual. It's important to avoid being cast as an opponent. When you tell the person you want to see this resolved to everyone's satisfaction, it shows you value a solution that they can feel good about too. 

What other tips or ideas do you have for dealing with complaining in a productive and positive way? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter


  1. I really like this post. Another strategy I use is to ask "If this situation were resolved, what would it look like?" By getting the person to visualize and articulate what the situation would look like solved, it often makes the person stop complaining and start thinking forwardly. Then, it's also interesting to see that many times the person didn't actually know what he/she really wanted.

  2. Lately, when I hear a complaint from someone that can be easily addressed or corrected, I just do it without comment. The times this has happened the person is right there as I address it or fix it. The person quickly gets the message that he or she could have done the very same thing. I might say, "Is there anything else I can do to support you?" afterwards. Other times, I just carry on with my day. I later get an email of thank you and an apology for venting. Since adopting this method I notice not as many people head my way when they have a complaint.

  3. Great suggestions - worthy of a poster!

    Just a thought about complaints via email.

    We have a +1 mantra in our community (students, parents, colleagues). If you've something emotional to convey then +1 the communication channel and call instead. If you can, +1 the telephone call use it to arrange a face-to-face meeting. Email is great for transfer or information, terrible for conveying emotion - so much is misinterpreted, both within and between the lines. If I receive an email laced with emotion I get straight on the phone. Modelling this strategy with a colleague that repeatedly used email to complain, they eventually changed their behaviour and called instead. Change in habits requires a change in culture. Once this becomes the cultural norm within the community, complaints can be resolved much more effectively via face-to-face dialogue. It’s good to clarify within your community the use of conflicting versus combative language. Conflict (a difference of opinion) in an organic institution based on the fidelity of relationships (aka schools) is healthy, and should be encouraged; combat destructive and disrespectful.

    In the transition from a classroom practitioner to a middle leader and beyond, we often forget to focus on an important aspect of leadership skills: managing difficult conversations between adults. Good teachers fast-tracked into leadership roles because they have been identified as excellent/expert practitioners in pedagogy, need to quickly familiarise themselves with andragogy. Your list of 11 phrases are a great scaffold to share with colleagues.

    Just need to get around to mass producing the +1 stickers for everybody’s laptop, desktop monitor, telephone etc!!

  4. Outstanding! I read this twice and will read it again, I'm sure. I have always said that "problem-posers" are people you want on your team. It's important to let go of the ego and listen and learn from others. This post affirmed my beliefs and gave me new tools. That's COOL! Thanks!

  5. I am just new in my post in a small school and i think this article would be a big help on me. Thanks and many more helpful write ups in the future.