Look for the Request Behind the Complaint

Let’s face it, we all know that person, or people, who it seems do nothing but complain. Beautiful, sunny day and they say it’s too hot. Cool fall morning and it’s too cold. The coffee is not the perfect temperature! Why do you have to drive so fast!? Do you have to drive so slow!? Why are those kids so loud!? It never ends.

In the working world, we have them too. In project management, they’re everywhere! Stakeholders, team members, vendors, functional managers! You start to label the complainers and get sweaty palms when you see an email or meeting request from them. Get ready for bitchin’!

But behind every complaint is a request waiting to come out! All you need to do is listen, ask questions, and listen some more.

Early in my career I had a stakeholder who emailed me daily for status. He complained constantly he wasn’t being given the full story about how the project was progressing. If I didn’t get an email from him at the end of the day, I’d have one waiting for me first thing in the morning. If I provided a less than stellar status, I was in his office getting bombarded with questions. I avoided this person as much as I could! Any conversation with him didn’t go well.

Fortunately, I had a great mentor at the time who I looked to for help. They gave great advice; ask why a daily update is needed. After probably 50 emails and a 20 office visits, that’s one question I hadn’t asked.

After a week, I finally built up the courage to ask. The answer was surprisingly simple; his last project was a $200,000 failure! The project manager always gave rosy status reports which weren’t true. It was a blemish on his record. So now, he didn’t trust PM’s and definitely didn’t want another project failure.

It felt like the clouds parted and the angels began to sing. It made sense. He had a bad experience and didn’t want another. Instead of thinking, “I’m way better than that last person!”, we instead talked about what I could do to ease his nervousness. Instead of him emailing me, I would email him. We eventually created a weekly checklist of tasks to be done and updated it as they were completed. Eventually, instead of daily updates, it went to three times a week, and down to two. He began to trust me more as I provided him timely, honest status.

Since that time, I’ve learned a lot about dealing with complaints (I’ve heard plenty of them!). Most complaints start emotionally-charged, so de-escalate the situation by not being emotional back. Keep calm and don’t get angry, even if inside you’re boiling. Talk evenly and keep eye contact. The situation should calm quickly, though not always.

To get to the request behind the complaint, there are two things I ask of the complainer.

The first is tell me more. As they complain to you, continue to ask questions. Listen to what they say as well as what they may not be saying. Ask them to tell you more. Eventually, you may find they had a poor experience in the past. Or maybe they know someone who has been fired because a project failed. Or a previous PM lied to them. Asking them to tell you more can help uncover that request.

The second request is I ask them is what one thing I can change. I ask for one thing because that makes them stop and think about what should be changed and would fulfill that nagging request. They may throw more than one request at you, but you will then need to ask what is most important to them. Remember, you can’t change everything!

Finally, when someone complains, you need to have solid EQ (emotional intelligence) to handle the feedback. EQ gives you humility to listen and realize what the complainer is saying is relevant. This may contradict what you’ve been doing or thinking. Instead of getting upset or emotional when someone disagrees with your approach, listen intently and understand the other person’s point of view. You’ll be surprised what you realize and learn when you look at it from an analytical standpoint.

You will never, ever, get away from complainers. But instead of rolling your eyes and “dealing” with them, take a different approach. Listen. Ask questions. Have them tell you more and then ask what one thing they would change. Get to that request they want to make. Who knows, that one request may do wonders for your project!

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