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Staying sane when people complain

January 26, 2021, 16:14 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Colin Tapscott gives his advice on how to deal effectively with complaints
Staying sane when people complain

She leant forward, elbows anchored on the desk and her head sunk into the palms of her hands, covering her eyes.

She rubbed her eyes, temples and forehead in smooth rhythm, as if trying to rub away the madness. In front of her two contrasting emails. “I’d like to complain about too much home learning in lockdown,” doing combat with “there is not enough home learning being sent to my child in this lockdown.”

Complaints are a growing issue for school leaders and the pandemic and lockdown adds a whole new dimension to them. So how do you stay sane when people complain?

Find the pin

We come across many annoying people and some annoy us more than others. This is because how we manage our mind dictates the level of how insane complaints can drive us. Emile Chartier, known as Alain, a French Philosopher from the early 20th Century, tried to help us deal with annoying people by coming up with a simple formula. “Never say that people are evil, you just need to look for the pin.” Look for the source of the agony that is causing such behaviour from them. Move from anger to pity.

Make friends with the dragon - turn foe to friend

One of my favourite children’s books is, ‘Alexander and the Dragon’. In this book Alexander is scared of the dark and the dragon that lives under his bed. One morning he approaches his dad with the dilemma and asks what he can do. His dad replies, “there are only two things that you can do with a dragon – fight it or make friends with it.” Alexander decides to fight it with his plastic sword. But, after bashing it on the nose and the dragon’s ensuing ‘ouch’, he decides to make friends with it. The result of which: the dragon helps him with his dilemma of the dark.

If you consider situations where you are unhappy with something. It is much harder to get really cross with those that you know and have a relationship with. Our first step to sanity in dealing with complaints is building proactive relationships with those that have potential to complain; our staff, parents and community. If you have notorious complainers, invite them in before issues. Some complainers care passionately about the school; they just don’t always know how to express it well. By listening to them and maybe even engaging them in helping, you can turn the dragon from foe to friend. They may even be able to help you reduce the opportunities for complaints.

Manage the chimps

Steve Peters, in his book ‘Chimp Paradox’, outlines how we can manage our mind to deal with emotions that we feel. He explains that each of us has a metaphorical ‘chimp’ that can get agitated and emotional when it feels under threat. This is our Amygdala, the emotional centre of the limbic part of the brain. So, when you have an emotional complainer it is because their chimp is agitated. In turn you have a chimp too that may well be agitated by their behaviour. Steve Peters outlines two key things that helps calm them and you. 1. Don’t dismiss the chimp – recognise the emotion and 2. Reassure the chimp - Remind the chimp that you would like to help and remind of times when it has been ok.

“I’d really like to help you. I can see this situation is upsetting you.” Two sentences to start off your response helps the complainer to not see you as a threat.

“I recognise this is emotional for me. But remember, in the past things have got better after dealing with a complainer.” Two sentences that you can say to yourself to help your chimp to calm.

Nine-point plan

There is a risk with complaints that we can feel like a victim. I have found three key things to do in each area of before, during and after a complaint, that helps us to take back control, helping us to feel like a leader again.

Before – Be Proactive

Firstly, decide what are the PARAMETERS, what is acceptable from a complainant and set de-escalation phrases everyone uses. Secondly, it’s about PERSPECTIVE. As a leader it is important that we create balance so that complaints don’t take too much perspective in our mind. As hard as it is, try to ensure there is time for relationships. Look after yourself with a good balance of sleep, diet and exercise. Take time to read and watch articles that develop your mental ability and time in the spiritual disciplines that inspire you. Finally, be PROACTIVE. Work proactively with stakeholders to address issues and reduce the chance for complaints. Give the complainer less opportunity for a complaint because you have already dealt with it.

During – TUNE-IN

During a complaint, TUNE-IN to their complaint and your emotions. Firstly, when someone is in ‘chimp’ behaviour they will struggle to engage in the logical solution finding part of the brain. Time allows the logical brain to catch up and so try to give a little time, a cup of tea, a planned appointment the following day. All of these can allow them to engage that part of the brain. Secondly, TUNE-IN. Listen to them to understand them, not just to hold a conversation. Summarise what you think they are saying to check understanding. They will feel listened to and you will gain clarity. Thirdly, play TAG. Dealing with complaints doesn’t have to be a solo sport, you can tag a teammate. If it’s affecting you, then consider either asking someone else to take over or rearranging for a time the following day.

After - REVIEW

After a complaint, you can sometimes feel exhausted, so firstly it is time to REPLENISH. Know what replenishes you and then spend time doing that. Spend time with people who appreciate you and energise you. When you work in a school the youngest children can often offer replenishment. Secondly, REVIEW it. Unpick what worked well and anything you would do differently. This allows you to regain control and see this as a process. Thirdly, REMIND yourself that the poor behaviour is their chimp. It is about their inability to control their emotions. Also, it is good to REMIND parents when you have dealt with complaints with a ‘you said, we did’ message. Where it is something that affects a number of people, highlighting your response in your next newsletter helps show your community focus and build reputation.

Taking control

Staying Sane when people complain, is about taking back control of your mind and the situation. Proactively working on creating perspective in your life and working hard on reducing the opportunity for complaints helps you reduce the chance of frustration taking hold. Tuning in to the complainer and your emotion allows you to remain in control. After the complaint, reviewing your emotions allows you to choose how to respond. All of which helps you to keep it under control and improve the situation.

Always have a plan

Before - PROACTIVE

  • Parameters: decide what is acceptable and what is not. Plan and use consistent de-escalation phrases.
  • Perspective: create perspective by making time for relational, physical, mental and spiritual activities.
  • Proactive: work proactively with stakeholders to address issues and reduce the chance for complaints.

During – TUNE-IN

  • Time: when there are heightened emotions, time allows the logical part of the brain to catch up.
  • Tune in: listen to them, summarising what they have said, to gain clarity and help them to regain a sense of calm.
  • Tag Team: if it’s affecting you, then consider either asking someone else to take over or rearranging for a time the following day.

After - REVIEW

  • Replenish: know the things that replenish you and spend time doing that. Spend time with people who re-charge you.
  • Review: unpick what worked well and anything you would do differently. This allows you to regain control and see this as a process.
  • Remind: remind yourself that the poor behaviour is their chimp. Remind parents when you have dealt with complaints with a ‘you said, we did’ message.

Colin Tapscott, director Everyday Leader and author of Everyday People, Everyday Leaders