This happened to me over a year ago, pre-pandemic when shopping was a different experience than what it is now. Honestly, some changes have been good. I think you’ll relate.

I was in a line-up at a large big box store (I won’t mention the name – suffice to say they used to have lots of food samples in the pre-covid days, and endless lines at the cashier). I did a quick sweep of the store, got the items on my list, and headed for the cashier with the shortest line-up. None of them were short … I said, “shortest”.

I was in the slow line, ugh.

After waiting what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, I realized that there seemed to be some complication with ringing through the gentleman at the front of the line. Maybe it was his card or the price on some item, I’m not sure. All I know is that help had to come and sort through and get the line moving again. I felt myself getting a little ticked and a lot curious.

Meanwhile, the line behind me grew and with it, we all began to grow as well–impatient, that is, myself included. I had a presentation to finalize, photocopies to make, handouts to get ready. I wanted to leave. Perhaps it was this sense of urgency and the cashier’s lack of it that heightened my sensibilities. I noticed things I wanted to complain about.

The extrovert inside me screamed to be released. I couldn’t hold it inside anymore so turned to the guy behind me, a young chap in his twenties, and said, “Wow, I can’t believe that there are such lineups at every cashier, yet they have a couple cashes closed. Why on earth would they do that during a busy time?”.

He looked at me somewhat puzzled. OK, maybe “puzzled” is being kind. His expression shouted, “Why is this woman speaking to me?”, and you know something? He was right. He might have thought I was looking for him to somehow magically solve the problem. I wasn’t. I was simply satisfying my need to vent and looking for some consensus regarding how ridiculous this wait was.

At that moment it hit me. I was reminded of what I tell my clients before they assert themselves and speak up:

Decide whether you want a solution or just need to vent.

In the words of Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end”. Know WHY you feel the urge to speak up. It’s less about complaining than it is satisfying a need to have your frustration acknowledged, perhaps even shared. You either want to find an answer to a troubling question or you want emotional validation. The two reasons take on different approaches.

Letting the other person know the outcome you’re expecting is helpful. This way, they know how to respond. Do you want a listening ear and validation? Or do you want some options and solutions?

Sometimes you just want to vent.

Of course, if venting is your objective, turning to friends and people who know you are infinitely more effective than some stranger in a grocery line-up, though both serve the purpose of finding reassurance that your position is valid and can be seen and appreciated by others. Sometimes, that validation alone is enough.

If it’s a solution you’re looking for, that’s very different. Turning to those who know you or are in a similar situation may feel good, but it’s not going to do anything toward solving the problem. Instead, speak to a decision-maker, someone in a position to create change in the area of concern. Sometimes ferreting out who this person is can be a challenge in itself, especially in large, bureaucratic organizations. 

A great approach is to start with the phrase, “I’m hoping you can help me.”

It puts people in “receive mode”, gives them esteem in that you’re elevating their position to one seen as someone who has the power to assist, and it’s respectful and polite. 

Don’t complain, assert.

Next time you feel the need to “complain”, think of it instead as you asserting yourself. Decide what you want before you start and I assure you, it will increase your chances that you’ll get it. Now, wouldn’t you rather be known as a strong, assertive communicator rather than a whiny complainer? Now you have one more tool to do exactly that.  

© 2011, updated 2021 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein
COMMUNICATION CONSULTANT www.MarionSpeaks.com 
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