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How to Handle Family Complaints

Thanksgiving is almost here. We all hope this is a holiday filled with genuine warmth, where the focus is on gratitude and we feel loved and supported by our families.

Sadly, I know the reality is that many are likely to spend much of the day on the defense against criticism, dodging negative comments and complaints.

In honor of (and in preparation for) impending family gatherings, I’d like to share with you a few tips.

I’m often asked:

“How can I make my [father/mother/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin/child/other family member who I must spend time with] stop complaining?”

If this is your question, I have some bad news: You can’t “make” anyone stop complaining. Most people don’t like being told what to do. As parents and teachers know all too well, you can request changes and you can even lay down consequences for not changing, but in the end, each person is independent and the decision to change is theirs alone. Not only that, but this question smacks of judgement and most people get either angry or defensive when they feel judged.

BUT don’t give up hope! There are definitely things you can do to reduce the number of complaints in your world and minimize their impact.

A word of caution: Doing any of the following takes courage and vulnerability. Your tolerance for that can go up and down on any given day so be patient with yourself and others (particularly family). Breaking old habits and introducing new ways of interacting takes effort. The results are generally not instantaneous, and you will likely encounter some rough patches along the way, but it’s worth it so keep trying.

Tell your family you’ve decided to Go NoCo and ask for their help

Telling others that you’re working on breaking your own complaining habits can kick off a great conversation about what is and isn’t a complaint, why you think it’s important to stop, and what you hope to gain by giving it up.

Ask for help recognizing when you’re complaining, and (if you usually complain a lot) note that you might be more quiet than usual if you can’t think of something positive to say.

If you’re feeling bold, let people know that you might have to leave conversations if they take a turn that makes you want to complain.

Note: This method only works if you’re genuinely working on your own complaining habits. If you’re just putting on a front to control others, they’ll see right through you. And they’ll probably start complaining even more about you.

Expanded (harder to swallow) note: It’s can be difficult to see (and accept) that wanting to control another person’s complaining is really you complaining about their complaining. Take on going NoCo on as a personal challenge. Others may want to follow your lead, but only if you’re genuine about it.

Declare Complaint-Free or NoCo Zones

Designate a part of the house or a specific time as a Complaint Free Zone, such as in the kitchen or during dinner.

This works well if you’re already recognized as a leader in some way, like the host of the party, head of the family, or the main chef.

It’s key to make the declaration before the complaining starts, so it doesn’t feel targeted. Send an email to everyone in advance, or put up a sign saying “No Complaining” in the desired location to get the conversation going.

If you’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while, Thanksgiving can give you a convenient excuse to start. Switching the conversation away from complaining about what you don’t have to gratitude for what you do have is supposed to be the focus of this holiday in the first place. The trick is to encourage everyone to keep it going for an extended period of time.

Get curious about why they’re complaining

Every time I hear someone complaining, I know that I’m listening to someone who is unhappy in some way. That may be a supremely obvious statement, but it’s something that we often forget, particularly when we’re exhausted by listening to a complainer. Complaints (particularly chronic ones) are symptoms of something else, an unfulfilled need or desire that the speaker has a hard time expressing directly.

Next time you’re stuck listening to a complainer, shift your focus away from your own suffering and try to imagine what the other person might be really needing or wanting. While you can never know for sure exactly what is going on in another person’s head, you probably have some good intuitive guesses.

Do they feel overlooked and need attention? Do they feel unloved and so take on the victim role to gain sympathy? Do they feel insecure and so feel the need to put someone else down in order to feel better? Do they feel powerless and therefore lash out at others with blame?

Tap into your own empathy and think about a time that you felt overlooked/unloved/insecure/powerless. Remember what that feels like. Put yourself in their shoes and speak to them from that place.

Try to respond to their deeper underlying need with something that’s positive and affirming. If you imagine they feel overlooked, give them extra attention focused on a positive story or experience. If you think they feel insecure, ask them about one of their past achievements or do something that underscores their essential place in the family.

For example, one time I noticed that someone near me was starting to complain about everything and everyone, butting into conversations with complaining non-sequiturs. I realized that she was feeling ignored by all the busy people around her. I went over to her and asked if she took any photos on her recent trip, and if I could see them. For the next 10 minutes or so, she lit up as she recounted her adventures and told me the stories that she so clearly wanted to share. I gave her my full attention and genuinely enjoyed feeling her joy. Afterwards, she was calmer and happier for the rest of the day.

Be patient. Breathe. Be grateful.

Listening to a chronic complainer can be very painful. The core desire of wanting them to stop is to reduce your own suffering. Here I have the best news of all: It is possible for you to suffer less regardless of whether or not they stop complaining.

When we are suffering internally, it’s often because we want the world to be different from what it is. We wish that we had a picture perfect family. We wish that our [father/mother/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin/child/other family member] was less negative or self-centered. We imagine that we’d be happy if only [x] happened.

When you encounter yourself thinking like this, pause for a moment and breathe. Think about the part of you that’s impatient and wanting to change reality and ask it to take a rest. Picture yourself having more patience, more acceptance of reality being what it is. Search inside yourself for feelings of gratitude and focus on them. This gratitude can be as specific as about a particular kind of food you have on your plate or as general as feeling grateful for being alive right now.

Lastly, remember that no matter what is happening, “This, too, shall pass.”

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The above techniques have been “field tested” by myself and others. They are based on the work of countless people in psychology, neuroscience, Buddhism, and various other fields. To me the depth and breadth of the work in these areas serves to demonstrate how many are struggling, and it’s inspiring to see how many want to help.

Above all, be kind to yourself and try not to absorb others’ judgments. Know that I am with you, that I fight my own demons of depression, self-judgement, and negativity. Whatever your struggle, you’re not alone.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving or whatever kind of holiday you choose to celebrate. I am deeply grateful to all of you and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you.

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