Complaining Effectively (Or Not): Guy Winch’s “The Squeaky Wheel”

So many noted individuals have spoken out against complaining. But is this tendency to complain about complaining at all fair to this timeless and widespread practice?

A few of the anti-complainers:

Maya Angelou: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Randy Pausch: “Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”

Eckhart Tolle: “When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”

Presumably, though, some of this is actually a semantic issue. Therapist (and standup comic) Guy Winch, author of the highly rated The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem (2011)explains this in Psychology Today:

Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.

In this model, then, complaining is good; whining bad. Venting somewhere in between.

On the benefits of complaining, Winch further states, “Speaking up about a complaint and attaining a resolution makes us feel empowered, assertive, effective, and resourceful. It can boost our self-esteem and enhance our feelings of efficacy. It can help us battle depression, improve our relationships, salvage partnerships, and deepen friendships.”

That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that all inner complaints are worth mentioning; so, an important step is figuring out which ones are. For example, in an intimate relationship, which issues can you let go of and/or figure out on your own and which are worth risking the possibility of overt tension and conflict?

Winch proposes asking oneself five questions before proceeding (Psychology Today). (Refer to the post for more details.)

  1. What do I want to achieve? “Knowing the answers will help you express what you actually want more clearly—and make it more likely that you’ll get it.”
  2. To whom should my complaint be voiced? “You might think this one is obvious but in fact we often complain to one person about the behavior or actions of another.”
  3. What is the best venue and method to express my complaint? “While talking in person is generally best, if one member of a couple tends to be explosive or defensive, or if one is much more skilled at expressing their feelings and debating than the other, discussing an issue over email might keep the calm and give both partners a chance to collect their thoughts and think through their responses (read Why Some Couples Should Argue over Email).”
  4. What’s the best time to voice my complaint? “Be aware of the other person’s mood and tendencies and when in doubt, simply ask when they can have a discussion.”
  5. How should I phrase and structure my complaint? “The best way to structure a complaint is to use the complaint sandwich method in which you sandwich your concern between two positive statements. The first positive sentence should make the person less defensive and the second should motivate them by letting them know that if they respond to the complaint positively all will be well (i.e., you won’t carry lingering resentment).”

Below Winch elaborates on the “complaint sandwich“:

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