You've heard people complain. Everybody does it at least some of the time, and many people do it a lot. A person who is complaining usually thinks he is perfectly justified because everybody knows how healthy it is to express one’s anger (or annoyance or disgruntlement). It’s called “venting.” It is a very common and widespread belief that venting is healthy.
But psychological research has shown that the expression of anger actually makes people angrier. The idea that somehow people store up anger in their bodies that then needs to be released is an inaccurate theory. It is a “common sense” idea based on a Freudian theory and seemingly backed up by the everyday observation that some things do seem to get rid of anger: exercise and airing grievances. And it’s true. Airing a grievance makes anger disappear. But complaining does not.
“But,” you might be saying, “isn’t airing a grievance and complaining the same thing?” The answer is that they are almost the same thing. The only difference is who you’re talking to. If you have a grievance with George and you tell it to me, you are complaining and it won’t help to dissipate your anger. In fact, it has a very good chance of making your anger worse. But if you tell your grievance to George, your anger or feelings of annoyance are likely to vanish.
If the person who is “venting” really wants to feel better, he needs to communicate with a person who can do something about his complaint.
Therefore, I heartily recommend that you instigate this as your personal policy: All complaints should go to the person who can do something about it. That means when someone is complaining to you about someone else, you can kindly direct them to the person who can do something about it. This may seem a rather rough thing to do, and you can surely be as courteous and friendly about it as you are able, but it is the most sane and productive way to deal with those complaints. And if you have a complaint, turn it into a request and then talk to the person who can fulfill that request.
ALL COMPLAINTS SHOULD GO TO THE PERSON WHO CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Write that statement on a card and hang it on the wall. Post it at work. Memorize it. Print it on business cards to hand to people who complain to you. Tattoo it on your back. Perhaps I’m getting carried away.
But I’ll tell you why that statement makes a good personal policy. If you have to listen to Alice complaining about Sam, you are forced by social pressure to side with Alice against Sam, sympathizing with her. This will weaken your relationship with Sam (or make you two-faced). Another option you have is to defend Sam, thereby perhaps straining your relationship with Alice.
A third alternative is to say, “I think Sam is the one you ought to be talking to about this.”
People will naturally complain to someone who isn’t involved because it’s easier than complaining to someone who can do something about it. But it doesn’t improve anything.
If the complaint isn’t important enough to take it to someone who can do something about it, then it isn’t important enough to bother you with, either. If it is important, it should probably be said—to the person who can do something about it.
This simple policy can take a negative, unproductive expression and turn it into a force for positive change.