How To Complain Without Triggering Defensiveness

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Cindy wrote to our Complaint Makeover Corner asking for a complaint makeover for an issue that has serious health implications for every member of her multiple family household. Here’s what she said prompted her complaint. “Our diets were changed for the better a few years back but the quality of our food has recently been heading downhill. More fatty and sodium filled processed foods are taking the place of healthy ones. These changes show not only on our shelves but on our bodies as well. I eat the bad foods and my kids eat them too.”

Cindy tried speaking to the person responsible for the shopping in their home (the adults share various household responsibilities between them). “I’m not trying to rock the boat or blame anyone,” she said, “but we agreed to a healthier lifestyle a few years back and I’ve noticed more and more not so healthy food entering the kitchen. I’m horrible at portion control, we all are. But it’s hard with this food as it tastes so good. If we started buying healthier choices again it would be easier.”

Cindy was especially concerned because the members of her household do not have health insurance. Alas, she did not get the response she was hoping for. She writes, “If anyone complains about anything people get defensive or walk away. Nothing is ever resolved.”

Although Cindy’s instinct to ward off defensiveness was on target, her technique for doing so was not as she made a mistake many of us tend to make. Starting a complaint by saying “I’m not trying to rock the boat or blame anyone,” actually communicates the following, “I hope you don’t get defensive but this is your fault”. Similarly, many of us start our complaints by saying, “I hope you don’t get angry,” which practically invites the other person to get angry.

Instead, when we suspect the person to whom our complaint is addressed might get defensive, we need to use the Complaint Sandwich and open and close our complaint with positive statements (view a brief instructional video on how to construct a delicious complaint sandwich here). Cindy should have started by saying, “I really appreciate the time and effort you invest in doing the food shopping for everyone. I know it isn’t easy shopping for many people and navigating so many choices.” This introduces the topic by expressing appreciation which is less likely to trigger reflexive defensiveness.

Cindy should then have made her complaint as simply and as briefly as possible. “It would mean a lot to me if you could choose healthier foods that have less sodium and more nutritional value like the ones you were purchasing previously.” By reminding the person that they had been cooperating with the goal of eating healthier foods (before they started buying unhealthy ones) she is suggesting they need merely return to their own earlier standards, not just hers.

Finally, it is best to end with another positive statement to motivate the person to absorb the complaint and to increase the likelihood of their responding to it positively, “I know it’s asking a lot because those bad foods are incredibly tasty and tempting but if you can make an effort to avoid them it would truly help me out. And if there are any of my household responsibilities I could modify to make your life easier, I’d be happy to reciprocate.” Ending with a promise of reciprocity when it is relevant and applicable to do so often motivates the other person to heed our complaint and make efforts to address our needs.

If you would like to submit a complaint for the complaint makeover corner please feel free to do so using the form on the contact page.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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