Read more: The art of complaining
“The meat of the sandwich is the complaint itself,” Winch said. “And here’s the trick: The meat has to be lean. In other words, all you need is the one incident to make your point.” Don’t present a compendium of every offense; just stick to the specifics of the present situation. In the case of the dish-leaver, that might sound like this: “I saw that your cereal bowl is in the sink from this morning.”
Just as it’s important not to include a list of frustrating incidents at this stage, it’s also important not to include a generalization about someone’s basic nature. The complaint You didn’t clean up after yourself veers unproductively into criticism when the clause because you’re so lazy is tacked onto the end of it. So focus strictly on what happened, Winch advised.
The final component of the sandwich is another positive statement, this time one that might motivate the other party to do things differently. This inducement could be something like, “If you could make an effort to put your dirty dishes into the dishwasher, it would make me so happy.”
These statements might be set up differently if complaining to a stranger rather than a loved one (a stranger might be less interested in making you happy), but the format remains the same. And in all cases, Winch says, it’s important not to yell or be sarcastic. “However angry or frustrated you are, if your tone is too sharp, you’re distracting from the message,” he noted. Then, down the line: “The minute you see any hint of an effort, you reinforce it like crazy”—that’s the best way to encourage more of the hoped-for behavior in the future.
These principles are not just useful in the interpersonal realm—Winch says that well-framed complaints can also bring about better results in customer-service scenarios. Applying the aforementioned tactics to corporate grievances requires a few twists.
First, specificity is especially important when dealing with companies. Winch says that many customer-service representatives use systems that have them choose from preset categories of complaints, so it can be harder to get a favorable result if you mention a bunch of different issues. For instance, if you’re trying to get a rental-car company to reverse an unexpected charge, don’t also go on about how uncomfortable the car’s seats were—it muddles the real reason you’re calling (and makes you sound as if you aren’t discriminating in what you choose to complain about).
Second, expressing empathy for a customer-service representative can help a lot. “They are usually a low-salary employee and their job is horrific. They really get cursed at all the time, every day,” Winch said. He added that when he calls a customer-service line, he often opens with something like, “I’m going to apologize ahead of time for sounding annoyed. I’m annoyed with this situation, not with you personally—so please forgive me if I sound frustrated.”