Forward thinking: Behind every complaint

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    Loren Simmonds

    Most public leaders are service minded . . .

    So, naturally they want to do all they can to help other people.

    That being said, I have found when public servants receive a citizen’s complaint, they tend to do one of three things:

    • Want to fix it immediately.
    • Tend to work overtime to please.
    • May take the complaint personally.

    Each of these three strategies can and may lead to burnout and very little job satisfaction. However, understanding that behind every complaint lies a commitment, allows us to alter the way we listen and act on complaints.

    Stated somewhat differently, a complaint means someone cares enough to come forward. If they didn’t care, we would not hear from that person and may be cheated of the information they will share with us.

    Have you ever noticed how easy it is to fall into a complaining mood? The weather isn’t sunny, or the line at the post office is too long, or there is not a convenient parking spot in front of the grocery store. Complaining can become a way of life all too easily. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like myself when I complain, and frankly, I don’t care to be around others who are complaint driven.

    My desire is to have mostly sunny days, efficient systems and convenient shopping. Our desires may not always be realistic, but understanding what we really care about allows us to shift our language away from what we don’t want — the complaint — to what we do want — the desire. This shift in thinking and speaking can alter the way we live and lead.

    In the private world, the motto, “The customer is always right,” often guides business decisions about customer complaints. The customer gets his or her money back or accepts a new product. In the public world, the realm of public issues is vastly more complex. Therefore, it may be more difficult to solve a citizen’s complaint with ease.

    When we care deeply about something — enough to complain — we are committed to that “something.” The trick for public servants is to shift the conversation from what the citizen is complaining about to what they really care about. The result is you have empowered the citizen, and it gives you information for action.

    Have you read the Declaration of Independence lately? If so, you know that it is filled with complaints about the actions of King George of Great Britain toward the colonies. I counted over 30 grievances listed in the document.

    The genius of the Founders is that they knew exactly what they wanted and clearly stated their commitment after they listed their complaints: “Our intentions, that the united colonies, are and ought to be free and independent states and they are absolved from all allegiances to the British Crown.”

    What a powerful statement of collective commitments!

    The Signers not only stated what they wanted, they declared what was at stake for them personally with this powerful last sentence: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Understanding what they really cared about and not just their complaints, gave the Founders power to propel them toward the vision.

    I would share with you a few questions you may ask yourself when you get stuck in a complaining mode or to help shift others from complaints to desired results:

    First, what is your request?

    This question helps the person to move from what they don’t want to what they do want? It is not uncommon for those who are complaining to not know what they want. They just know what they don’t want or don’t like.

    Next, if you had a situation without complaints, what would it look like and could you describe it?

    When a person is asked to describe the outcome, it is common for them to discover that what they have described is out of the realm of possibility or they answer their own question. Either way, it moves the conversation from complaint to desire.

    Third, how would you know if your desires or concerns were satisfied?

    This is another question that gives you — and the citizen — new information for action. Now you have something that you can work with rather than complaints.

    Finally, what would satisfy you?

    This is a similar question, but more direct. This moves the conversation to specifics rather than rambling, non-specific criticism.

    The above questions are intended to gently guide the conversations so new information will come forth, and you have the opportunity to discover what matters most to the citizen or person complaining. When listening to a person with a complaint, it is important to stay focused and respectful.

    I truly believe that most people do not want to complain. They do so when they feel they have no other choice. Consequently, their emotions may spill over. Listening without personalizing the complaint and then utilizing the above four questions will help you and the person complaining to come to a more acceptable solution.

    In closing, successful public leaders either have learned or will learn to light a torch of inspiration by speaking about what matters most — our desires — rather than repeating a list of complaints and fears. In other words, our public leaders have a responsibility to move the public dialogue from merely reciting a list of complaints to taking formal action on our sacred commitments.

    Until next time . . .

    — By Loren Simmonds

    Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.

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