How Empathy Shifts Complaining to Collaborating
by Mimi O' Connor
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr Creative Commons
“The first duty of love is to listen” -Paul Tillich
Complaining is part of human nature. No one seems to be exempt. We use it as a quick way to vent a particular frustration or disappointment. I live in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Our typically harsh winters provide us with daily justification during those months to grouse about the weather. Complaining about “how bad it is” is often the go-to ice-breaker (pun intended) that instantly bonds us together in our adversity.
Complaining is a form of weeping with words instead of tears
When our complaining descends into a pervasive, reflexive habit, however, it can be draining for the one doing the complaining as well as the one hearing it.
In order to understand others and ourselves better, we need to uncover the frustration and loneliness that is at the root of all complaining. Offering more mercy and less judgment calms us and connects us to one another. We can learn how to respond, to our own and others tendencies toward complaining, with gentle attention and the healing balm of kindness.
Understanding Why We Complain
Complaining is a form of weeping with words instead of tears. It is the vocal reflex of our despair. When we voice this despair, we use up our valuable energy to voice what is wrong, while contributing nothing to how to make it right. This venting is then perceived as a negative end in itself rather than a positive means for improvement. We tend to marginalize those we label as complainers because we don’t want to “catch” their negativity.
Comedienne Rachel Dratch captured the profile of a chronic complainer when she created the character Debbie Downer for Saturday Night Live. Debbie Downer had an uncanny ability to bring down the mood of everyone around her by interjecting every conversation with bad news and negative opinions.
Few people don’t recognize a part of themselves reflected in Debbie Downer. It’s important to understand that we tend to complain because we are reacting fearfully to someone or something with confusion, upset and discouragement. Complaining is about feeling lost and vulnerable, not confident, hopeful and strong.
When we find ourselves or someone in our life stuck in a pattern of whining and grumbling, instead of turning away in disgust, we can learn how to respond with less judgment and more mercy. What is needed at that time is a generous dose of understanding and compassion.
Extending Empathy Softens Fears
Often we fear that if we ask the one who is complaining to tell us more about their feelings, it will inevitably result in being subjected to even more negativity. However, the opposite frequently occurs. When we sincerely ask another to tell us how they are feeling, our attention and concern often softens the hard edges of their fears enabling them to talk more calmly and reasonably about their issues.
Empathy is the key that can unlock the door of differences, forging a bridge of interpersonal connection. It is the willingness to understand and non-judgmentally share in the feelings of another. It requires listening with an open heart and mind. (See Ornish Living article, The Health Benefits of Listening.)
Empathic listening includes listening with your eyes, ears and heart in order to understand what the other person is saying. Of course, it may be challenging to imagine listening to another empathically when the complaints they are expressing seem so dark and negative in nature. But it should be comforting to know that just the act of empathetic listening will improve the complainers outlook.
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In his book, The Stress Solution, Psychologist Arthur P. Ciaramicoli wrote, “When we give and receive empathy we produce the near magical neurotransmitter oxytocin, which creates a sense of trust and cooperation-keys to negotiating and resolving conflict.”
Empathic listening encourages us to practice setting aside our defensive, biased thoughts of why the person is complaining. Instead, we can focus on staying present and tuning in to hear the feelings behind the words. This act of merciful non-judgment can then be reflected in a simple way that is based in connection and not correction. We can gently offer, “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. It must be hard.”
How to Practice Empathic Listening
When confronted by another’s complaining (or by those nagging complaints about yourself that keep repeating in your own mind) do your best to bring your awareness into the present moment. Pause and take a few slow, deep breaths. This simple action of mindfully slowing down can aid you in calming any emotional reactivity you may be feeling.
Observe Body Language
So often we get stuck on the negativity of a person’s words and neglect to observe the whole person. When we are able to take a step back, even for a brief moment, we can become aware of the stress, tension and discomfort manifesting physically in another person or in our own bodies. This broadened perception can serve to balance our heated, subjective reactions with some cooler, kinder and more objective observations. (See Ornish Living article, How Body Language Can Connect Us)
Tune In and Reflect Back
As we continue to practice turning toward another’s feelings with compassion, it will become easier to set aside our tendency to jump to false assumptions. We can tune in to what they are saying without taking it personally. We then have the freedom to check the accuracy of what we are hearing.
Repeat back to them what was said and simply ask if you understood it correctly. This respectful inquiry helps to create trust in our reciprocal ability to not only listen to one another’s words, but to accurately and lovingly hear the tender contents of one another’s hearts.
Kindness Heals Us
No one is exempt from having a bad day. Sometimes life has a way of ganging up on us. We are grateful to those in our lives who are willing to bypass our complaining in order to hear and understand our fears. It is when we feel heard, that we can begin to soften and heal. Our isolation gives way to the emotional intimacy of connection in the presence of such kindness.
What have you noticed about your tendency to complain?
Share the health!
Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist
Hearts linked, together we heal…