Thank You for Complaining 

 April 14, 2021

Thank you for complaining

When someone you love complains ... about you … to you, the wisest response is, "Thank you." 

And if you think they're mistaken, follow that up with, "Tell me more."

It does not feel good to be criticized. It does not feel good to hear you've disappointed or hurt someone you love. However, it's bound to happen -- even in the best of relationships.

And when it does, don't you want to know about it? Absolutely! Or, at least … kinda sorta?

While you may not like or agree with what they say, at least they are telling you something is interfering with your relationship. In doing so, they are giving you a gift -- the gift of an opportunity -- to show you care how they feel and seek to make things right.

Let the complaint be the start of a conversation in which you seek to understand their perspective. Whether you agree with it or not, it is their experience. Get curious and choose to lower your walls of self-protection. After all, you care about them and the relationship. Ask questions. Listen. Seek to understand their experience.

Often, when you know an individual's perspective, it makes sense. It may not reflect all the facts. It may not have been what you intended. But when you understand someone's experience, the dots connect, and the pain they feel makes sense. 

I recently talked with a couple who'd gone out of town to visit family. The wife felt hurt -- abandoned even -- when her husband spent most of the time hanging out with his cousins without her. This was supposed to be a family vacation, she said, and I'm your family! I felt like I wasn't important.

Hearing her thoughts, it was easy to understand why she felt hurt.

Then her husband spoke. Of course you're important -- you're the most important. That's why I left my family and moved out of state for you! This is the one time a year I get to see my cousins. Is it too much to ask to focus on them a few days a year?

Each spouse felt hurt, misunderstood, offended. Neither was wrong. They simply had different expectations, which they had not discussed in advance. Once they understood their spouse's perspective, they realized their spouse wasn't being unreasonable -- their expectations simply did not match and had not been talked through in advance. It was a set up -- unexpressed and unagreed to expectations -- they were bound to be disappointed and hurt.

Once you understand well your loved one's experience, then consider how to respond. A genuine apology is a good place to start. Even if you don't agree in full, if you are sorry for the impact it had on them -- say you're sorry for the pain they've felt. We often want to help others feel better by explaining why we did what we did, or why their interpretation is wrong. That adds insult to injury. Do not minimize what they feel. Empathize and apologize.

I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings. I'm sorry it did not seem like I cared.

Then -- once they know you understand and care -- then, ask permission to share your experience.

I appreciate you helping me understand your experience. Would you be open to hearing … ?

Notice -- this is a yes or no question. Respect their right to say yes, no, or not now. They may need time before they are ready to seek to understand "your side" of the experience.

It hurts to know you've hurt someone you love, especially if you've been misunderstood. Nevertheless, they have "handed you their heart," so to speak -- shown you it is hurting, and told you why. Handle it with care. Appreciate what they've done, even if you don't agree with it. Through your response, make it clear you care when there are issues in the relationship. You want to know about them. You will be responsive to the impact, even if it was unintentional. You will seek to make things right.

Thank you for letting me know. Please tell me more.

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About the author

A former CPA, my career started at a Big 5 accounting firm. As part of the Family Wealth Planning group, I saw the challenges of family business and family wealth. The cons often overshadowed the enjoyment of working with family. I was convinced there had to be a better way, but could not find anyone who could help navigate the intersection of family, business, and wealth. Determined, I left my career in finance and earned a Masters in Psychology.In the almost two decades since, I have learned how families can thrive -- even when business is personal. Let me help you, your family, and its business thrive.

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I am based in Charleston, SC and serve clients across North American and abroad.