Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain -- and most fools do.
-- Dale Carnegie
Tact is the art of telling someone where to go so well that they actually look forward to the trip. So it is with complaints: A successful complaint doesn't just vent a problem -- it proceeds several steps along the path to changing the problem by giving the interested parties the tools and the motivation they need to fix it.
The trouble is, like
compliments, effective complaints are hard to make and even harder to receive. Done properly, they can change negative circumstances for the better. But done incorrectly, they don't just backfire: they also feel terrible as you're making them.
So let's begin with a stationary target: the written letter of complaint, which has the advantage of being revisable ad infinitum and can be perfected before it is sent. Indeed, if your conflict-resolution muscles need tone, practicing on a written document before you try to complain in person can work wonders.
Incidentally, Miss Conduct has written many a letter of complaint, but she is only proud of two -- and they both resulted in offers of employment with the manufacturers to whom she complained.
The successful complaints combined three things: a compliment, evidence and a wish or question.
The compliment softens up the recipients, the evidence puts them in your shoes -- as a customer, supervisor or employee -- and the wish or question galvanizes them into action. (Preferably this is action that responds to your problem, not just mixing a stiff drink or opening a bottle of
wine with dinner.)
The Soft Start-Up
As with any sort of criticism, your readers or listeners will not accept a problem -- or even a communication -- from someone who is entirely negative about a situation or relationship.
After all, salvaging the unsalvageable is wasted effort, and it's just no fun to listen to someone carp, as Carnegie observes above. So even if you believe you have a lost cause, don't let it show. It may require a herculean suspension of disbelief, but you must at least temporarily assume that there is some way your situation can work out positively.
Even if your only goal is to call attention to your departure, you have to pretend that the situation can be saved in order to make your complaint effective.
So the first step is to find something nice to say about your partner in conflict, preferably about one of their core values, and make it specific enough to demonstrate (or pretend) that you value your connection.
Here, Miss Conduct's third rule of etiquette comes into play. Not only must you treat the nincompoops as if they were your boss, you also need to entertain and flatter, even if it requires creative application of the truth.
Find something --
-- to speak of as if it were positive. Examples might include, "Your work ripping down the examination room walls four weeks ago was exemplary -- I can see right through the studs to the bullpen next door and my noisy, cold-calling cohorts are able to invite me to lunch without resorting to the telephone." Or, "The speed with which you sent our direct mailings was remarkable -- they also looked terrific. That blue border really pulled the graphic message together." See? Specific, flattering, even a bit gushing.
The next step in a successful complaint is to get your readers or listeners to walk a mile in your shoes.
Be careful, as the goal is to get them to understand the consequences you have faced because of the problem you share, not to get them to feel just as frustrated as you are (as momentarily satisfying as that would be).
For example, "Because my examination room remained unusable for three weeks after you demolished the existing walls, we have had to rent alternative offices at additional cost."
Or, "The misspelled direct mailings have cost us three customers that we know of, but repairing the injury to the rest of our relationships requires that we all drop our work to personally appear before each of them to massage their sore necks and bruised egos. The overtime is going to kill us, not to mention the damage to our tennis elbows." (Note that making your adversary laugh is always a bonus.)
The Wish or Question
The last step in a successful complaint puts the ball in your listeners' or readers' court while still maintaining some sort of leverage.
Before you pay the bill or take receipt of the imperfect item, try to engage your partner in conflict to tackle salvaging the relationship with you.
Especially if the situation may be too far gone to salvage, what you need now is a partner who'll help you going forward. It may mean allowing someone you don't trust one more chance, but the good karma (and low cost) in letting them try to fix the problem will most likely pay off.
Rhetorically, the salutary wish or question usually takes the form of wishing that there were some way to resolve the problem, then leaving the solution open-ended. This way, your listeners or readers feel brilliant when they come up with a solution, instead of just feeling like losers for creating the problem in the first place.
It can also mean putting it to them as a wish and a question, as in, "I wish there were a way to mitigate the situation. Can you think of some way to compensate us for the loss and get our exam room back as soon as possible?"
Or "I wish there were a way to turn back time before the vulgarity slipped into that direct mailing, but perhaps you can think of a way to help us with our customer repairs and rebuild the business we have lost?"
You'll know you've made a successful complaint when you are able to mail it off -- or say it -- without getting upset. You should be relaxed, filled with relief and hope, not clenching, pouting or gritting your teeth.
Achieving equanimity may take a few drafts or a few practice sessions role-playing the meeting with a friend, but the good news is, with practice it gets easier. At least, that's Miss Conduct's story, and she's sticking to it.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.