Have you ever been trapped in a complaint rabbit hole? Imagine this conversation between friends: I really miss the Wednesday evening dinners we used to have, I wish we could do that again. Okay, me too, any evening will work! But I don’t want to drive at night. Okay, let’s try for breakfast on Saturday morning! But I’m already overcommitted on Saturdays. Okay, how about a Sunday afternoon, after church? But I don’t want to wait around until you’re finished with all of your church activities. Okay, can you think of another option? No. But I really miss the Wednesday evening dinners we used to have, too bad we don’t do that anymore.
I believe that complaining is on the rise, for two reasons: our current political season and changes in our Congregation.
As to the current political season, there’s actually a thing called Political Anxiety Disorder – you can read about it here: “Political Anxiety Disorder.” We feel anxious and helpless, and grinding on about little things is both substitute for and symptom of the big wave of discontent that is sweeping the nation. Something deep within us is nervous because we recognize what is at stake, and because that which has been quietly seething (xenophobia, misogyny, racism) has been exposed. Better to know about it than not, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening. We’re feeling the danger.
The second reason we get caught up in complaining is because changes in a system (such as a growing congregation) are discomforting, our default is to try and restore things to the way they’re most comfortable for and familiar to us, and we’re looking for allies in restoring things to the comfort level to which we’re accustomed. “Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike,” writes Trevor Blake in Three Simple Steps, and “the easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative.”
Understanding how unhealthy it is to congregate around the negative (it’s one of the things that immediately turns millennials off of church!), what can we do?
In her Fast Company article, "What It's Like to Go Without Complaining for a Month", Jessica Hellinger offers these 6 tips for complaint-free (or at least complaint-limited) living:
1. Know the difference between an observation and a complaint. The example she offers: “It’s cold outside” (an observation). “It’s cold outside and I hate living in this place” (a complaint).
2. Track how often you complain, and what you’re complaining about. This is about awareness. A friend did this by putting a rubber band around her wrist, and every time she noticed herself complaining she moved the rubber band from one wrist to another. “I moved the rubber band a lot more often than I want to admit,” she shared.
3. Separate yourself from chronic complainers. Complaining is seductive, it’s contagious, and it’s “as dangerous as second hand smoke” says Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule. Be intentional about stepping away from chronic complainers.
4. Turn complaints into solutions. My favorite line from Hellinger’s article is this quote from Joanna Wolfe, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University: “Don’t sit around and admire the problem.” Complaining is the easy part; collaboration on solutions is the fun part (see #6 below).
5. Use the “but-positive” technique. An example: “I really hate waiting in the doctor’s office, but I’m so glad to have access to great medical care in Nashville.”
6. Change “have to” to “get to.” A final example: “I have to go to a meeting” becomes “I get to participate in creating something meaningful and lasting for an entire group of people.”
We also know that in congregational life complaints most often relate to three things: personal preferences (98%), job performance (1%) and policy violation (1%). It seems to me that the six techniques outlined above will be especially helpful in countering the “personal preferences” category of complaining, sometimes dressed up as “concerns.”
Your GNUUC Healthy Congregations Team is in the process of creating a policy and process to help us learn “how to complain at church in healthy ways.” The first step is, “no anonymous complaints.” Anonymous complaints often begin with such phrases as, “People are saying...” or “Everyone thinks…” How might you respond if you hear such an anonymous complaint? Will you be seduced by it, or will you try to engage one of the 6 techniques offered above?
We’ll share the policy as soon as it’s completed and voted on by your Board (including a great flow chart prepared by Jesse Spencer-Smith). In the meantime, let us try to be especially kind and good to one another in this season of political anxiety; let us be mindful of our complaining and intentional about countering it; and let us be grateful for this amazing religious tradition we get to respectfully practice together as the Greater Nashville UU.
In faith and love,
Rev. Carmen Emerson