Some simple self-awareness activities to keep yourself from boarding the complaint train.
If a train leaves New York at 7:15am, traveling 60 mph, while another leaves San Francisco at 7:16am traveling 63 mph, at which time will they both dissolve into a mess of complaining passengers?
It is so easy to board the complaint train on any given day. Some days, all it takes is one little thing to set you off and suddenly, you've been issued your "ticket". For me, it can start with something as little as no cream for my coffee- I can feel the inner-spiral of a long dialog outlining the world's wrongs. Sure, nothing should come between a person and her coffee. But that's no reason to let fly with a diatribe of complaints.
Here's the thing about complaining- it's contagious. We often talk about how we are hardwired, thanks to those little mirror neurons in our brains, to mimic the behavior of those around us, especially those who we are close with or admire. Personally, I hate to be the conductor of the complaint train, but I know I've been guilty of it. We can feel that we've tipped the balance on those days when our complaints have gotten the ball rolling- we notice our friends and colleagues want to join in the gripe session, and next thing we know we can see our own bad attitude being mimicked around the office. Yikes. Not a thing for which you want to be responsible.
But let's be real here- sometimes, you need to get it out. But how? And where? And do you REALLY? I'll never forget working with OC President Kerri Garbis many years ago on a show in New York. While it can sometimes be easy for actors to find an excuse to gripe (and sure, sometimes with reason...), our little band of players was booked on a long trip on the complaint train. We were tired, we were annoyed, we were bored! Suddenly Kerri said, "I don't know why everyone's complaining. It just adds negativity and makes things worse. Why not just be positive and do our jobs?"
It's hard to have a contrary comeback for THAT.
Over the years, I've made a conscious effort to curb the griping. As a result, I've been able to gain a little perspective on whatever the issue is of the day. I also end up feeling better- I'm not forcing myself on a long, miserable journey and brining others with me by letting the complaints flow. Here are some things I try to do to ensure that my professional communication skills are always the conductor of my actions:
1. I ask myself "Is it worth it? Does it REALLY matter?": Ever complain to someone about how awful your commute was, only to get little to no response? That's probably because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't REALLY matter. Just like the cream for my coffee, somethings are just not worth complaining about. Or more simply put, don't sweat the small stuff.
2. I ask myself "What am I REALLY upset about?": Is it the coffee cream, or the fact that someone else is using my things? Is it your commute, or the fact that you aren't making it to work on time? Is it your awful boss, or the fact that you don't feel your work is being appreciated? Guess what? There are professional ways to communicate all of those issues. But it requires building the self-awareness to figure out what's at the core. Once you know what actual problems are brewing, you don't need to participate in griping about tiny issues. You can professionally address the big issue head on: "I'm glad to share my coffee cream, but it is something I like to have for me. Can we trade off on picking some up so neither one of us goes without?" "Can I speak with you about some commuting issues I'm having?" "I'd like to talk to you about my job performance lately- I feel I've been turning in some good work. Would you agree? Is there something that needs attention?"
3. Have a select support system: And know how, when, and where to request some time with them. I had a professor that advised that you never complain about an audition until you were at home, in your living room. It might seem extreme, but you never know who might be riding the train next to you! There's a time and a place, and the workplace isn't it. Have a trusted colleague at work? Have a standing lunch outside of the office once a month to let it out, with the understanding that things must be kept positive outside of that meeting. Outside of work, you probably turn to a close friend or spouse to work things out-sure, we all do! But be aware that the burden of listening to a barrage of complaining can weigh heavily on them. Ask if they would mind being a listening ear for a bit, and put a time limit on yourself. Once that time is up, the complaint department is closed. It will keep both parties from allowing those mirror neurons to go crazy.
4. Try to listen, but not engage: If you're on the receiving end, you can offer support with out jumping on the train. You can ask questions of the speaker like I ask myself above: "I know you're feeling frustrated- do you feel this is worth your frustration?" "Do you think there's a bigger issue at hand?" Listen, but try not to fan the flames. Try changing the subject or the setting if you feel things are dragging on. Sometimes a small change can make all of the difference in the world.
I can be honest- I'm not perfect, and I'm sure I'll feel that urge to complain come on again before I know it. However, the great thing is how markedly better I feel when I don't complain- when I breathe, let things go, and laugh things off. And since attitudes are contagious, I hope those are the ones that I'm spreading.