You’re Probably Complaining the Wrong Way

The psychologist Guy Winch’s method for getting people to do things differently

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The words vent and complain are often used interchangeably, but really, they refer to two different forms of expression, each with its own aims. Venting is about seeking validation and sympathy, whereas complaining comes with a concrete end goal—in many cases, getting someone else to do something differently.

Generally speaking, the psychologist Guy Winch says, people do a lot of venting, but “we are afraid to voice complaints, and for good reason: It often doesn’t go well.” Because of how people typically present complaints, Winch says, they put their loved ones, friends, and co-workers on the defensive—and as a result they often don’t get what they want. Winch has a better way—one that he laid out in his book, The Squeaky Wheel, and to a crowd earlier this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

Winch recommends a formula called “the complaint sandwich”—a series of three statements calibrated to make people more receptive to changing their ways. The first “slice of bread” in the sandwich is a positive statement that will hopefully make the listener less defensive when the complaint itself arrives. For instance, in the case of a significant other who leaves dirty dishes in the sink, the complaint might start with something like, “You know, you are such a considerate partner in so many ways, and I love living with you.”

“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.”

Third, unlike in the dirty-dishes scenario, the first person you reach at a company might not be able to do what you’re asking of them. If it becomes clear that they don’t have the authority to remedy the situation, you can ask to speak to a supervisor. But if the supervisor isn’t helpful either, Winch said, “I wouldn’t go slowly up the chain.” A strategy that he’s used “innumerable times” with great success is going straight to an executive—many email addresses are Google-able—with his complaint sandwich.

Sometimes, though, complaints—whether directed to people or companies—don’t get results. “There are some very difficult people that there are no right ways to address them,” Winch noted. There might well be situations where continuing to complain just isn’t worth it. But sometimes, Winch said, getting a complaint to finally land requires a very special type of person: a lawyer.