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Why Complaining May Be Dangerous To Your Health

Need to get something off your chest? Choose your words wisely; complaining might not make you feel better.

[Photo: Flickr user Ryan Hyde]

Quit whining. The truth is nobody likes to hear it, and it’s bad for you.

A half hour of complaining every day physically damages a person’s brain, according to research from Stanford University. Whether you’re the one griping or you’re the one listening, exposure to negativity peels back neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive function. Over time, complaining becomes a habit. If you’re surrounded by complainers, then you’re more likely become one.

"As a society, we complain too much, but more importantly we don’t complain effectively," says Guy Winch, PhD and author of The Squeaky Wheel. "We’ve lost a sense of what complaining is for; instead, we use it as an exercise for venting and that has consequences."

Winch explains venting causes two problems. "Research has found that 95% of consumers who have a problem with a product don’t complain to the company, but they will tell their tale to eight to 16 people," he says. "It’s unproductive because we’re not complaining to the people who can resolve our issue."

Venting also floods the bloodstream with cortisol, the stress hormone. "We tell ourselves that we need to get it off our chest, but each time we do, we get upset all over again," he adds. "We end up 10 to 12 times more aggravated."

Complaining Correctly To Get Results

What do we do if we have a problem? Winch says complaining the right way may not only create a solution; it can curb anxiety and improve relationships. He offers these seven tips:

1. A Complaint Should Have A Purpose

Before you share your woes, have a specific goal in mind, Winch says.

"If you are complaining to a company or a person, don’t do it until you figure out what you want," he says.

Winch says identifying a purpose has two benefits. First, it helps calm emotions. "We all have limited intellectual resources," he says." The more we think about what we want to achieve, the less churning we will do."

Second, it makes the other person better able to help you. "If you don’t know what you want, the other person may not know how to resolve the situation either," Winch says.

Identifying a purpose is most important when complaining to a spouse, friend, or colleague, says Winch, because this is when you’re likely to take the least amount of time preparing. "This is when things go badly," he says. "Don’t voice dissatisfaction until you’re clear about why you’re upset and what you want."

2. Start With A Positive Statement

Before you launch into the problem, set the stage for a positive outcome. Even customer service professionals will get defensive if you start out in anger.

"A complaint is an accusation," says Winch. "It’s natural to get defensive, but you want to deliver your complaint in a way that motivates the other person to help."

State something positive, such as the fact that you’ve been a loyal customer or that you share a common goal. Winch says it makes the person less defensive and more likely to hear what you say next.

3. Deliver A Lean Complaint

If the problem has been going on for a while, don’t go into each and every detail, says Winch. Instead, talk about the most recent incident. Stick to the facts as much as possible and hold back on emotions.

"You want to be as simple and brief as possible," he says.

4. End With Another Positive Statement

Finish your complaint by ending on a high note. Tell the person if the problem is resolved, then it will improve your relationship. Or simply say something like, "I would really appreciate your help."

Winch says wrapping your complaint between two positive statements builds a complaint sandwich that’s easier to swallow: "When you add in the positives, you’re more likely to get the result you want," he says. "The person will find you much more pleasant to deal with, and they’ll be more motivated to use their resources to help you than if they feel abused because you were venting."

5. Consider Your Listener

If you are complaining to a company, remember the person you’re talking to probably didn’t make the product or the company policies.

"A complaint is a request for help and when we ask for help, we ask nicely," says Winch. "This can be tricky because we are not motivated to be nice when we are most annoyed."

If you can’t control your emotions, then at least acknowledge them. "You’re probably frustrated so when you reach someone who can help you, tell them, ‘I’m sorry if I sound annoyed; it’s not you,’" says Winch. "Let them know it’s not personal. They will appreciate that."

6. Use Social Media Properly

Taking complaints to social media can be a double-edge sword. It’s easy to use the space for venting, but it can also be effective because many companies monitor their accounts.

"If you complain on Twitter or Facebook, you’re likely to get a helpful response if you provide enough information for them to contact you," says Winch. "If your flight was canceled, for example, you might get immediate results by posting your problem on Twitter rather than standing in line with everyone else for 45 minutes."

7. Let It Go

Whatever the outcome, be prepared to let it go instead of dwelling on it. Taking the time to complain properly can help.

"These minor irritations can cost us mental health," Winch says. "We need to practice emotional hygiene and get rid of habits that are bad. If you choose to do the thing that is going to get you upset, you will just end up feeling victimized. But when you do the thing makes you feel more empowered, it increases your self-esteem. How you handle complaints is a good example of your overall emotional hygiene."