3 Mistakes People Make When Complaining — That Drive People Away

A psychologist shares insights on how to deal with gripes and concerns without pushing people away.

couple snuggling lovingly KIRAYONAK YULIYA / Shutterstock 

Complaints are, by definition, confrontations and as such, they're not fun for all concerned. However, they're also important tools for managing relationships, and they're very necessary. The problem is that most people are terrible at complaining effectively to loved ones.

Why we get it wrong when we complain

When it comes to our complaining psychology, many of us are creating self-defeating prophecies. Indeed, once we've had poor results when voicing relational complaints, we're less likely to voice them going forward.


A recent poll showed that just 15% of the population felt that they were effective at getting a satisfying resolution when they’ve had a complaint. And over 55% of them stated that they were simply reluctant to voice complaints to loved ones.

In order for a complaint to be effective, the outcome must be satisfactory, but more often than not, the conversation devolves into an angry and defensive battle that leaves everyone feeling short-changed and unheard.


The inability to coherently and concisely express concerns to loved ones can be attributed to common mistakes that if avoided, can lead to a breakthrough between you and the people you love.

RELATED: 5 (Classy) Ways To Be Assertive, So People Give You The Respect You Deserve

Three common mistakes people make when complaining:

1. You don't pause to think through what you want to achieve.

Asking yourself, 'What realistic outcome am I looking for?' is something few people do before initiating the conversation.

2. You voice more than one complaint at a time.

We often launch our complaints in barrages. And doing so is likely to cause a bunker reaction (defend and avoid) not healthy communication.


3. You indulge in anger and by doing so, distracting from our message.

Raised voices and sharp tones might feel justified but they're not effective tactics (expressing your emotions calmly with words is best).

RELATED: 3 Ways You Push Men Away Without Realizing It

3 reasons people are so bad at voicing relational complaints

1. The need to complain is at its strongest when we feel hurt, disappointed, frustrated, or angry.

When these emotions are sharp, they take away from our ability to be measured, reasonable, and make us more likely to skip over or the preparation required to plan out an effective complaint. Then when things go poorly, we become more convinced that it's not worth complaining.

2.  Once we become reluctant to voice our complaints, we hold in all our dissatisfactions.

Eventually, our frustration bubbles over and we express way too many complaints at once or do so with too much anger, both of which lead to poor outcomes.


3.  We feel helpless about getting the result we want so we express our feelings in passive aggressive ways.

This can be things like stonewalling or withholding, which make us feel even more disempowered and even less likely to voice complaints in the future. This creates patterns of unhealthy and, at times, toxic communication.

RELATED: Why Cutting A Family Member From My Life Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

False assumptions that make our complaints less effective

1. We believe we have to make the 'best' case by presenting multiple examples/instances of the same 'offense'.

You might have a hundred examples, but you only need one to explain why you're complaining. Multiple examples feel like you're attacking character instead of behavior.

2. We believe that venting our feelings will make us feel relieved but that’s not necessarily true.

If venting your feelings causes an argument, you won't feel much relief. To feel relief, we need the other person to 'get' how we feel and communicate that to us. In other words, the active ingredient isn't in the venting it's in the emotional validation we hope to get by doing so.


The ‘complaint sandwich’ is a simple formula for complaining effectively to a loved one

The goal of the complaint sandwich is to get your complaint heard despite the natural defensiveness complaints trigger and also, to motivate the recipient to respond favorably to your 'ask' (which you should have after thinking through the outcome you'd like to achieve).

The first slice of bread in the ‘complaint sandwich’ is positivity. 

This is a positive statement called 'The Ear Opener'. Its goal is to lower the recipient's defensiveness and allow them to absorb the complaint to follow.

The 'meat' of the ‘complaint sandwich’ is the the concern itself. 

The ‘meat’ is the actual complaint or request for redress. It should be lean and kept to a single incident and single principle.

The second slice of bread in the ‘complaint sandwich’ inspires a good response from the recipient.

This is a positive statement called 'The Digestive'. Its goal is to increase the recipient's motivation to respond positively to our request (e.g., to give us an apology, agree to make efforts to change, be more mindful about the issue, etc.) by reassuring them that doing so will make things better between us and bring the issue to an end.


RELATED: 10 Ways Neurodiverse Folks Can Have Deep, Thoughtful & Easy Conversations With Anyone

Here is a step-by-step illustration of how to make and use the 'complaint sandwich':

Let's use the following complaint as an example: You were hanging out with another couple and your partner criticized your cooking 'jokingly' in front of them and it hurt your feelings.

1. When you're alone, tell them you'd like to discuss something.

This gives them a heads-up that it's important and you want their full attention. Do not start the convo on the fly or when they're engaged in another task as you won't have their full attention.

2. The ‘ear opener’ needs to set the context and be positive.

For example (A) "I like that we can joke around and tease each other about certain things," or (B) "I'm glad we're making friends with Sam and Robin--it's fun to hang out with other couples."


3. The ‘Meat’ should be lean and simple.

You could say, "But it didn't feel great when you joked about my cooking in front of Sam and Robin. My feelings were hurt, and I felt embarrassed," or, “But making that joke about my cooking in front of them made me uncomfortable."

4. The ‘digestive’ should include your 'ask' and reassurance.

You communicate that if your partner agreed, you'd have no further complaints about this issue.


You might tell them, “I know you didn't mean to hurt my feelings, so could we agree to keep that kind of joking between us going forward, and not criticize each other in front of other people?" or, “I know that wasn't your intention so to avoid a similar situation in the future, could we agree to not criticize one another in front of other people, even  if it's something we joke about at home?"

5. Be prepared to listen.

In addition to expressing your complaints, you have to be willing to hear to any concerns they have that are relevant and valid and to address them.

6. Be prepared to redirect the conversation.

 if they voice a counter complaint of their own and you have not finished stating your concerns, say, "I'm happy to discuss your complaint once we finish discussing mine. It'll be more productive if we finish one issue at a time."

7. Get a positive response to your ask.

Hopefully, your complaint is met with a positive response, in which case, you should thank them and express appreciation for their willingness to listen and consider your request.


RELATED: How To Talk To The Person You Love About Anything

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned psychologist who advocates for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives. He is the author of the popular Get Wrong Do Right Emotional Health Newsletter. More writing and a full bio for Dr. Winch can be found on his website.