When people think of empathy, they tend to see it as a soft skill, full of yielding and niceness. That’s a part of empathy, but there’s a deeper and more full-bodied form of empathy that helps you engage with people when they (and you!) are not feeling nice at all. In The Art of Empathy, I share a number of relationship skills for dealing with conflict and for repairing bonds, and this is one of my favorites: Conscious Complaining.
Conscious Complaining with a Partner
In this two-person practice (which you can quickly teach to a loved one) one of you will take the position of the listener, while the other will complain consciously. Then you’ll trade places; it’s very simple.
Let’s start out with you as the first complainer: You can start out with some conscious recognition that the complaining needs to happen. In our family, we say, “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need to complain.” Then, you’re allowed to bring up whatever’s stuck in your craw—“Things are just rotten, this situation is bothering me, and things are too hard,” etc.
When you’re complaining, make sure that you name – out loud – any emotion you feel. You may want to have your Emotional Vocabulary List open so that you can be very articulate about how annoyed, disappointed, uneasy, enraged, distrustful, or humiliated (etc.) you feel.
Learning to feel and name your emotions will help you become emotionally fluent and increase your Empathic Accuracy – but more than that, the act of naming your emotions can help you calm yourself down and organize all of the action-requiring programs you’ve got running.
Complaining consciously with a partner is an excellent Emotion Regulation practice that will help you become more skilled in the presence of every emotion you have.
Your partner’s job is to support your complaining with helpful and upbeat yeahs! and uh huhs!— no advice, no suggestions, just enthusiastic support. Your partner’s job is to create a safe haven for your complaining — which immediately makes it less toxic. Your partner will also get an excellent gift – which is a chance to practice his or her emotion work out in the open, instead of being an unhappy receptacle for the unconscious complaining of other people. Everybody gets a healing in this practice.
An important note: There’s a rule in partner complaining, which is that the complainer can’t complain about the listener — because that wouldn’t be fair. If someone is willing to provide support for your complaining, then complaining about him or her would be cruel — it would be like taking a hostage.
If there’s conflict in your relationship, this is not the right tool to use. Conscious Complaining is for times when the problems are outside the relationship of the listener and the complainer (there are two practices for trouble inside the relationship in The Art of Empathy).
When you feel done complaining, you end your turn with gratitude, “Thanks — that’s been bothering me,” or “I didn’t realize I was carrying that much stuff around — thanks!”
This process doesn’t need to take forever; in fact, when you make room for complaining in a conscious way, people tend to become very focused; at a recent retreat, we found that 3 minutes was WAY too long for each person’s turn; 2 minutes was usually all that anyone needed. Bringing consciousness to behavior has so many benefits!
Then, you get to trade positions — the listener now gets to complain consciously while you listen and provide support and perform openly-acknowledged emotion work. When you’re both done, the session is over.
You’ll be amazed at how productive (and funny) this complaining technique is. We’re all taught to be positive, nice, and peppy at all times — which means we’ve got to repress most of our emotions, reduce our Empathic Accuracy, and lose our Emotion Regulation skills.
Often, repression will kick our emotions into repetitive feedback loops, but Conscious Complaining lets us tell the truth and restore our flow. Conscious Complaining is a great all-around stress-reliever, but when you can complain with a partner, there’s a special set of additional benefits:
- It teaches you how to reach out (instead of isolate yourself) when you’re in turmoil in a safe and boundary-respecting way,
- It teaches you and your complaining partner new ways to function around pain and trouble, and,
- It gives both of you the opportunity for your emotion work to be requested, respected, and performed intentionally.
See if you can find more than one complaining partner to share this practice with. If there’s someone you regularly call when you’re tense and cranky, they’ll probably jump at the chance to perform emotion work in a more intentional way. And if there’s someone who regularly complains to you, you’ll probably love the chance to bring your own emotion work out of the shadows and create better reciprocity in the relationship.
Consciously complaining with your friends is a wonderful way to clear the air and be emotionally honest in the presence of others, and it sets healthy behavioral boundaries around a behavior that’s usually unconscious and unrewarding. In this practice, each of you takes responsibility for learning how to name and listen to your own emotions, and this will add immeasurably to your emotional skills (this excerpt is from pages 191-193 in The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill).
Complaining! It’s now an empathic skill!
*I modified this partner-complaining practice from the book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want by Barbara Sher, who writes about how important it is for you to complain openly (in a safe and healthy way), rather than shut down and lose your emotional honesty and integrity. It’s an excellent book (it’s now online for free, because Barbara Sher rocks!).