Venting With Purpose: How To Complain About Your Family

Tips for complaining about family members and how best to respond

Byline: Doug Baumoel

Est. Read time: ~5 to 6 minutes

In any family business, complaining about fellow family members is bound to happen. Our natural tendency as human beings is to focus on negative events. This negative bias leads us to complain—a lot. Ten good things may have happened at the office that day, but the one bad thing will get most of our attention. So, we will come home to complain about that one thing (and the one person responsible) with our spouse, or we will text our sympathetic siblings and cousins about it.

But complaining in a family business context can have unintended consequences that harm relationships with loved ones. Here, I’ll explore the reasons why we complain and provide tips for how to complain (and how to respond) in a healthier, more constructive manner.

Why Do We Complain?

Negative bias is wired into our brains. This is similar to the bias commonly known as loss aversion. We feel the pain of losing something much more than we feel the happiness of gaining something of ‘equal’ value. We are more upset when we misplace $100 than we are happy if we find $100 on the street. When we feel that we have lost something, such as respect or a preferred outcome, those feelings are magnified. They become more important to us and occupy more of our thoughts than the ten good things that may have happened during the day.   Sharing our disappointments lightens our load, so we complain.

Complaining feels good because it elicits empathy from the person we’re complaining to. It reinforces our own interpretation of the facts and strengthens the emotional bond with the supportive person listening to our complaints.

However, this cycle can be damaging for a family business, especially when the person you complain about is a family member. Familial relationships exist outside the office and are permanent and interconnected. Complaining might seem innocuous at first—just blowing off steam. But there are unintended consequences that everyone in the family needs to be aware of.

Unintended Consequences of Complaining

Little ears are always listening. Children pick up and remember what is said around the dinner table, in the car, and whenever you think they aren’t listening. They can also sense anger and tension. From these experiences, they form attitudes about the family members being complained about and even about the business itself. For families who think generationally about their family company, the last thing they want to do is to bias their kids against other family members and against the business itself.

We also get stuck in the echo chamber of complaining. Once we complain and our spouse or other family member ‘takes our side’ to support us, it becomes more difficult to change our views about what happened and to convince our confidant that the perceived transgressor ‘wasn’t really that bad.’ Changing your view of a situation or a person can invalidate that bond formed when you needed support from the other person. It can make you seem unpredictable, insincere, or that you ‘cry wolf’ too easily. It’s easier to keep doubling down on the negativity.

Complaining also creates barriers with the perceived transgressor and makes it harder for you to see change or growth in them. Acknowledging that you may have contributed to the impasse, or even just maintaining a respectful relationship with the transgressor, may mean you have to go back to your spouse or confidant and admit that maybe you were wrong about the situation. Additionally, your spouse or confidant may continually nag you about taking action to confront the transgressor or leave the business, potentially making matters worse.

How To Complain Productively

Neutralize Negative Bias

As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to focus on negative events over positive ones. Keep in mind that while your brain wants you to recall all of the negative memories you have with this person, there are most likely positive ones that supersede them.

Try to remember a time when you may have had an issue with this person in the past and were able to work it out. What happened? How did you overcome that rift? Thinking positively empowers you to think about how you’ve gotten through issues before, and you can do it again. Simply being aware of your own natural bias toward negative events can help create perspective.

Seek Opposite Opinions

When you’re complaining about someone, it feels great to hear someone agree with you. However, try to guard against this echo chamber. Complaining to people who you know will side with you will only rile you up more and encourage your negative thinking. Instead, try to welcome pushback from people who can help you look at the bigger picture.

Take the time to explain to a spouse or child that family businesses can be difficult and that while disagreements and conflict arise more than in a non-family enterprise, the benefits most often outweigh the negatives. Tell them that it’s their job to remind you of that when you get triggered.

Thoughtfully Responding to Complaints

Take It with a Grain of Salt

When listening to another’s complaint, it’s important to remember that you are only getting one side of the story. The person you are hearing from is likely presenting their perspective in an amplified and biased manner, and this could potentially skew your perception of the situation. There are likely other factors at play that you are unaware of, so it’s important to remember that you are only being given one piece of a larger puzzle. Be supportive, but help the complainer think more positively about the big picture and to create positive solutions. Try to avoid being part of the echo chamber.

Avoid Gossip, but Get Help

When providing support to someone who is complaining, it’s important to help them consider other viewpoints. By encouraging the complainer to discuss the issue with other people who may challenge their assumptions, you are helping them to expand their understanding of the situation. Of course, avoid gossip and needlessly or irresponsibly expanding the echo chamber.  Be very careful to suggest maybe one additional person who is knowledgeable about the situation and who could provide balanced counsel. This might help the complainer to better understand and, hopefully, empathize with the transgressor.

Suggest Solutions

In addition to being a supportive listener and helping the complainer to consider different perspectives, it can also be helpful to offer pragmatic strategies for addressing their complaint. This can mean encouraging the complainer to have a positive conversation with the person they feel wronged by or to bring in an outside perspective for mediation.

How Continuity Can Help

The potential for conflict is woven into the fabric of every family business. Incorporating strategies to manage conflict is a critical success factor for enterprising families. Complaining ─ as well as responding to complaints ─ constructively is part of any good strategy. Contact us to learn how we help families resolve their differences and find common ground to move forward.