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The Best Way to Listen to Complaints

As a business owner or senior manager, you're the inevitable recipient of problems, complaints, and suggestions. The tide of them can feel overwhelming. One client of mine took to hiding from his staff, and feeling vaguely picked upon, when staff members tried to come to him with ideas based on problems they’d encountered.

That’s understandable — and terrible. Problems are our best teachers, and ideas are how we innovate and serve clients better.  When listening to a complaint, our ideal outcome is NOT just to placate the complainer — it’s to harvest the improvement hiding in that complaint, without creating new work for ourselves.

Here’s the three-stage “Listen – Redirect – Empower” formula I teach to leaders on how to handle complaints and suggestions most effectively.

First, be clear on your goal. Why are you listening? Without a why, this will be drudgery.

Your goal might be “To ensure the person is (and feels) heard, and gets empowered to make change in a way that is effective for them and the entire organization -- without getting drawn in myself.”

When someone comes along with a problem or complaint:

I. Listen

1. Acknowledge what you heard them say (ensure they feel you heard them) without agreement or assessment – reflect it back. "What I heard you say is..."
2. Recognize them / praise them for their underlying positive motivation (show them that they are a hero for wanting to make the organization even better).

II. Redirect

3. Get them to state a “positive opposite” of their complaint – if they don’t want X, what *do* they want? "What would you like to have happen?"
4. Help them visualize the result. "If we achieve that, then a year from now, what will we see and hear?"

III. Empower

5. Get them to identify an “Immediate Next Step” – what can they take action on immediately, to start creating the positive outcome?
6. By when will they take that next step?
7. Set a date to follow up with them and see how it’s going.

How it looks in action

Jenny comes to you upset that the group calendar doesn’t show anybody’s vacation time. Team members keep complaining that they don’t know when someone will be out, and they get surprised when a key player is suddenly not in the office for a week. You’ve tried previously to get everyone to put in their vacations and travel plans, but aside from you, it’s not happening.

Listen – Acknowledge

“Jenny, I get it that you’ve had a bad experience. What you’re telling me is that Francine was out this week, that you didn’t know it, and now you’ll be late with a client project. I can see that that bothers you.”

Listen – Positive Motive

“I know you’re not trying to throw Francine under the bus, you’re just looking for how to make it easier for all of us to be successful. And you’re obviously focused on client success — which is exactly the right thing for you to be focused on. That client focus is a big part of why you’re so good.”

Redirect – Positive Opposite

“Let me ask you to restate this. If currently, nobody (or not enough) people use the calendar correctly, then what is it you do want? State it as a positive request.” (Coach her until she says something like “I want you to please use the calendar to communicate with everyone as to when you’ll be out of the office.”)

Redirect – Visualize Result

“Suppose everyone got on board and did it right. What would be different a year from now — what would you and I see, or hear, or taste, or smell or touch?” (Coach her to get clear – something like “We always know well in advance that someone would be out, we plan around it, we don’t drop as many balls, our projects are done with fewer delays and late nights, clients are happier, and we are all getting along better.”

Empower – Immediate Next Step

Here is where you find out if the other person actually cares about changing things, or just wants to vent. Ask “what concrete physical action could you take to start making things better?” Really drill down into the physical action — what would a video camera pick up?

If Jenny is going to talk with Francine, then is that a phone call to set the meeting, is it an email, or is Jenny walking over to Francine’s desk? If your complainer won’t commit to an action, let them bail out — just don’t let them reverse-delegate it to you. If they try, push it back: “You brought this up. You’ve got leadership ability. I want to see you take some small step on this — show me your commitment to making this better.” Let it be small, like having Jenny update her own calendar and getting her immediate team to do the same. (And don’t allow them to say they will “try.”)

Empower – By When?

Once your complainer has agreed to an action, set a clear deadline. “This coming Friday at 3 PM” is nice and clear; “Soon” is not.

Empower – Followup

Once they have a date and time for their next action, put a followup in your calendar to check in with them. For small tasks follow up just after; for big ones follow up halfway between now and their delivery date, so you’ll have time to help them course-correct and get unstuck.

There you are — in three steps you’ve harnessed your complainer’s energy, turned it into a positive vision, and empowered them in getting started on making things better. Meanwhile you haven’t taken on a new project, and you’ve built the other person’s leadership abilities.

Nice work.