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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Mindful Communication: The Complaint Free Challenge

Updated: Mar 31

The complaint free challenge was inspired by Will Bowen who outlined the technique in his book Complaint Free World. According to the author, 21 days is the length of time it takes to establish a new habit. On average, people complain about 15 to 30 times per day; and it takes 4-6 months to complete the challenge.

To encourage awareness of our habitual patterns of speech, he recommended using a bracelet and moving it from wrist to wrist each time we caught ourselves criticizing, complaining, or gossiping (Note: any trinket would do: rubber bands, bracelets, watches, a pebble that you transfer from pocket to pocket, etc.). In this way, the invisible becomes visible, and we can see how often we criticize, complain, or gossip. What we can see, we can monitor; what we can monitor, we can measure; what we can measure, we can manage; what we can manage, we can change.

For this challenge, we only count the criticisms or complaints we utter- not the criticisms or complaints we think. Self-censure does not alter the underlying perceptions or unmet needs that provoke words of criticism or complaint, but this practice of awareness does allow us to reflect on those perceptions and acknowledge our emotions and unmet needs. 

Gossip, criticism and complaining can be substitutes for the respect, affection, love, validation, appreciation, encouragement, approval, devotion, or reassurance we truly crave. 

According to psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert in emotional awareness, our emotions (and the thoughts that trigger them), filter knowledge available to us. We distort reality to fit our moods and interpret events in a way consistent with our emotions. When we complain or criticize, then, we are misperceiving the world and expressing only that which conforms to our emotions or moods.

The exercise promotes awareness, or mindfulness. I complain and criticize more than I realize. I complain for attention, for sympathy, or to avoid discomfort, conflict or responsibility. With insight, I see behind these unskillful means core needs to connect with others, to see and be seen, to be respected, to rest, etc. I criticize to project my own faults onto others, to mask my own mistakes, to impose my will, to avoid action, or simply to release the tension building up in the mind- however unskillfully or crudely. With insight, I can identify core needs for camaraderie, understanding, appreciation, or acceptance. 

There are other ways to communicate these needs without resorting to criticism or complaining. It is important to note that others also crave to be respected, loved, validated, appreciated, encouraged, accepted, and reassured. Thus we give, and often get in return, what we need.

The point of this exercise is not to expunge criticism or complaining from our speech. Complaining and criticizing can be positive and necessary. To complain of physical discomfort to a doctor, for instance, could result in an examination which leads to a diagnosis which then results in treatment that could save one’s life. To criticize unjust laws, corruption, human rights violations, etc. is moral and right. But, when criticism and complaint become default modes of speech, they could be toxic to our relationships with ourselves and others. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman identifies 4 communication patterns that undermine marriages: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The probability for divorce increases when these 4 communication styles are persistent.

The challenge does not call for doing away with complaining or criticism. Rather, these become selective tools we use sparingly and judiciously. The challenge motivates us to find substitute modes of speech to achieve the ends we truly desire- to love and be loved, to be respected, to be happy, to empathize with others and be understood, to bond, to live and work harmoniously with others, to forgive or seek forgiveness, to communicate openly and honestly about our deepest needs. 

The late author Dale Carnegie offers suggestions that are simple to understand, difficult to practice, but worthwhile all the same. Those we love most deserve our best efforts. Extending these small kindnesses to others is bound to enhance your relationships and sense of well-being. 

1. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.

2. Give honest, sincere appreciation.

3. Become genuinely interested in other people.

4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

5. Make the other person feel important- and do it sincerely.

6. Show respect for the other person’s opinion.

7. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

8. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires. Try to identify the needs behind the words. 

9. Appeal to the nobler motives.

10. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.

11. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

12. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.

13. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.

14. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.

15. Count your blessings, not your troubles.

As we become aware of our own habit patterns, we become sensitive to the pervasiveness of criticism and complaining around us. We risk becoming judgmental if we do not extend to others the same patience, loving kindness, compassion and forgiveness we give ourselves. It is easy to find fault and lecture: “Stop gossiping!” “Why don’t you quit being so critical?” “Don't complain.” But it may be more helpful to walk the path and light the way for others, pushing aside the obstacles, and pointing out the pitfalls.

You may find this exercise very challenging. It will require effort and patience. It is important to note that even self-directed criticism or self-blame is to be avoided. So, within the context of the practice, there are elements of love, forgiveness and compassion, which are antidotes to self-hatred, self-recrimination, and self-abuse. As we grow more mindful, we may experience "growing pains." You may experience frustration and self-doubt, for example, as you catch yourself complaining, criticizing, or gossiping for the 30th time that day. The same attitudes we apply in formal meditation- non-judgmental awareness, compassion and patience- will serve you well in this informal mindfulness practice. 

This path of awareness stretches to empathy.  If refraining from criticizing or complaining for 21 days is this challenging, how frustrating must it be for our brothers and sisters who are struggling to overcome deep rooted habits or addictions? 

To liken this exercise to a road or path is not just metaphorical. We are creating new neural pathways. Old habits are like well worn trails. You may find yourself returning again and again to your default mode of communicating. This can feel discouraging, but, to persist is to make progress. We fail forwards. 

There are practical applications to this practice. Communication is foundational to relationships, in mediation, negotiation, and leadership. In relationships, researchers John and Julie Gottman found that criticism, stonewalling, contempt and defensiveness undermine the majority of relationships. They refer to these 4 habit patterns of speech as the Four Horsemen; they predict the death of a relationship. They recommend attunement. Attunement is an acronym for awareness, turning toward the speaker, tolerance, understanding, non-defensiveness, and empathy.

In business, an entrepreneur making a pitch speaks with clarity, authority, and an understanding of root problems. They offer solutions, a compelling why, provide next steps, and inspire their listeners to act. This post is, itself, an attempt to inspire us to apply more discipline to our speech, to approach communication as an art, and to grow new skills to nudge us closer to desired ends.

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