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New Empathic Skills!

November 1, 2010

Hey there!

I just got back from teaching a week-long workshop at Kripalu, which is a yoga and personal growth retreat center in western Massachusetts. It was really fun to build a curriculum and create a place where emotional awareness was accepted and expected. This is very different from the regular world, I tell you what!

One fun activity we did grew out of a skill in the book, and I thought you’d like to try it with a friend.

Conscious Complaining with a Partner

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsIn The Language of Emotions, I present Conscious Complaining as one of the five empathic skills that can help you access and understand your emotions more clearly. In the book, conscious complaining is a solitary practice, but you can also use it with friends and family (provided they want to play). Conscious complaining is an excellent way to de-steam without blowing up, and if you can use it with the people in your life, it can help create strong partnerships.

I lifted this partner-complaining practice from the book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want by Barbara Sher (you can download it for free online!). In the book, Barbara helps you focus on moving toward the job or lifestyle that you dream of (but can’t make happen yet), and she’s a raucous, fun, and real person who understands how ridiculously hard that process can be. Barbara outlines your need to openly complain with supportive friends (rather than shutting down and becoming stuck and toxic). It’s an excellent book!

In partner conscious complaining, one person takes the position of listener, while the other person complains. The complainer starts 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, the complainer is allowed to bring up whatever sticks in his or her craw — “Things are just rotten, this situation is bothering me, and things are too hard” etc.

The listener’s job is to support the complaining with helpful and upbeat “yeahs!” and “uh huhs!”— no advice, no suggestions, just enthusiastic support. The listener’s job is to create a safe haven for the complaining — which immediately makes the complaining less toxic.

Note: There’s a very important rule, which is that the complainer can’t complain about the listener — because that wouldn’t be fair. If someone is willing to listen and 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.

When the complainer feels done, he or she ends the complaints in some way, like, “Thanks — that’s been crushing me.” or, “I didn’t realize I was carrying that much stuff around — thanks!” Then, the two get to trade positions — the listener now gets to do some conscious complaining while the previous complainer listens and provides support. When both people are 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 and peppy at all times — which means we’ve got to repress most of our emotions. Sadly, this repression tends to clog us up with all of the things we’re not allowed to say, or notice, or feel. Conscious complaining helps us restore our emotional flow when we get really trapped. It clears us out and brings back our perspective and our sense of humor.

When we can’t complain consciously, we tend to get stuck in moody emotional states that just won’t resolve. Conscious complaining lets us tell the truth, and it restores our flow. Conscious complaining as it’s presented in the book (as a solitary practice) is a great all-around tension reliever, but when you can complain with a partner, there’s a special secondary function: it teaches you to reach out when you’re in turmoil (instead of isolating yourself) in a relationship-strengthening and boundary-respecting way.

The Secret Surprise

Photo of happy catWhen you can complain consciously, you allow your emotions to be what they are as you speak honestly about what you feel. In unconscious complaining, you may just whinge and crab endlessly while you bore yourself and everyone around you.

However, when you can create a specific practice and boundaries for your complaining, it’s much easier to get to the point. When you can complain consciously, your emotions can help you understand the deeper issues trapped underneath your crankiness or your whininess. Then, you can go on with your day, get back to work, or take a breather. Huzzah!  When you know how to work with them empathically, emotions rock!

2013 update: Conscious Complaining with a Partner is now included in my new book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, along with many other practices for increasing your emotional skills, your communication skills, and your empathic aptitude!

9 Comments

Jednorozec Pokojowiec November 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I wish that I had been able to attend the workshop but it just wasn’t possible at this time. It would have been really good to see you again.

Thanks for the conscious complaining. A few years ago I read the book ‘A Complaint Free World’ and thought that it seemed like a good idea. You wore a purple bracelet and every time you complained you moved it to the other wrist. The goal was to go 21 days without moving it. After trying it for a few weeks I realized that there were some things that I just had to talk about even though they counted as complaints and attacked the bracelets with a pair of scissors. The world would probably be a better place if there was no unconscious complaining, but if something is really bothering me I’m going to find someone who will listen and bitch.

By the way, did you beef about not getting any beef at Kripalu?

Karla November 3, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Hey Jed, thanks for the insight. When there’s a rule about not complaining, I notice, the complaints become more necessary! But on the other side of that, when you have permission to complain, you tend to need to do it less and less. Funny!

Kripalu was great, and their food was fabulous and healthy. They had fish, organic chicken, and turkey available every day, so I was able to eat my crazy gluten-free, dairyless, soy-free cavemen diet in complete happiness. Yay!

Katrina November 2, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I have one friend — a fabulous, wonderful, trusted friend — who will let me do this just about any time I see him. I didn’t realize it was “conscious complaining” until I read your book — and then I realized just how wise and insightful my friend has been all along for providing me a “safe space” where I don’t have to be “strong” or “hold it all together” or “have all the answers”; with him, I can be a human being — fallible, imperfect, vulnerable — and who I am is still perfectly acceptable to him.

He’s the best example I’ve ever met of what a true friend can be.

Karla November 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Oh Katrina, what a fabulous friend you have. I think he needs a present!

It’s so necessary to have people in your life with whom you can unmask. The sociologist Erving Goffman called this kind of intimacy a “repair station,” where you can go in your backstage life to strengthen yourself for the many performances you have to give in the social worlds you inhabit.

If we don’t have repair stations, we are less able to figure out the intricate calculus of the social world, and we might forget that we are not merely the roles we play in the exterior world. Complaining partners rock!

Katrina November 4, 2010 at 4:29 am

Karla, I have, on occasion, given my friend a “token of my esteem.” This summer, I made “treasure chests” for him, another friend, and myself — I bought papier-mâché boxes at Hobby Lobby and painted them and decorated them with stickers.

Later, when I found out he was moving up into his boss’s position after his boss retired (my friend is now the “interim director” of a community college drama program, hoping they’ll pick him to be the “permanent” director), I made him an “office-warming” present for his new office — I bought a wooden tote and painted it and decorated it with some of my favorite quotations about theatre, storytelling, and teaching.

His birthday is this month; I’ve bought him a birthday present, and I made another gift to give to him and his family for Christmas.

I love making gifts for my friends; a mere “thank you” so often seems so inadequate.

Karla November 5, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Oh, gift-giving is so fun! It’s also an empathic skill, because you really have to pay close and emotive attention to people to give them the right gifts.

Yay you!

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