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Communication and Conflict Newsletter, Issue #015, The Serial Complainer
April 20, 2009

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Newsletter - What's a Serial Complainer?

The Serial Complainer
(....Or how, when we label people whose behaviour we find difficult we are avoiding resolution of the conflict - so the conflict keeps occurring ........)

Alan Sharland

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Hi Everyone!

Welcome to Newsletter no.15 - April 2009

Well, there's been another 30% increase in the number of people signing up for this newsletter this month, meaning about 1 in 4 of you are new subscribers! WELCOME! I hope you like what follows....

I had a whooooole newsletter drawn up last Sunday on the topic of the Rescuer Syndrome but then the page crashed on my pc and I lost all of it. I was distraught!!

So I'm going to come back to that topic next month.....possibly..depending on what else comes up in the meantime...and instead I found new inspiration this month with the topic of 'The Serial Complainer'.

The phrase is used often, particularly by those whose organisation is being complained about, and even more particularly by those within the organisation who are being complained about as individuals.

However, personally I've never met anyone who is seriously a 'Serial Complainer'. I don't mean that to sound smug.... I just mean I now realise that to be true. Using this label is just another ineffective response to a conflict.

Remember, I'm not 'knocking' anyone here....... we all make ineffective responses to conflicts at different times in different situations. It's ok to make mistakes. They provide an opportunity for learning.

In order to reduce the chances of repeatedly incurring the stress these ineffective responses have on our lives, it makes sense to try to learn from those mistakes. Otherwise, 'they' keep coming this case in the form of the 'Serial Complainer'.

Or that's how we explain it away, that's how we avoid dealing with the difficulty. We label the person whose behaviour we find difficult and through that we compartmentalise the behaviour in a box called 'Serial Complainer' in the hope that it won't come out again.

This article is written by Alan Sharland, Director of CAOS Conflict Management, London, UK

Because every time 'it' comes out we are confronted with the fact that we haven't learned to deal with that behaviour yet - and it's painful because we only have one response and it leads to someone shouting at us or saying bad things to us or about us. And we don't like that.

So, in terms of the Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution, the Principle of challenging the behaviour and not the person has not been practiced. We've challenged the person and not the behaviour. By labelling them.

So, how can we respond more effectively?

Well, you might think this sounds too first...but I hope you will see that it really can eventually be this simple:

We listen, we summarise and we ask questions.

The 3 basic skills of effective conflict resolution.

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Listening, Summarising and Questioning - The Simple, Effective Skills of Conflict Resolution

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Now, as many of you who have read about these on the website will know, describing it in that way does risk sounding glib.

What really matters however, and what provides the greatest challenge, is our understanding and awareness of ourselves and our intentions in practicing these skills.

Our mindfulness when we communicate.

When I have been involved in mediating complaints-related disputes and I have been told that the complaining party is a 'Serial Complainer' or similar label, it has always struck me, on meeting them, how often the complainant has been to one person.....and not been effectively listened to.

They have then gone to another person, often adding more to their complaint....partly about the first person who didn't effectively listen but also giving more detail because they think:

'Well, perhaps I didn't explain it fully enough last time and that's why they didn't understand.'... which is in fact quite a humble stance to take as they are acknowledging that they may have played a part in not communicating their concern as well as they could.

But when they go to the next person and they still receive resistance and non-listening, that is often when things start to become particularly difficult and the destructiveness of the conflict escalates on both sides.

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The complainant may then start 'parallel' complaints to more than one other person, usually more senior than those they have contacted so far. They may also start to write even longer complaints letters to reaaaaally get across what they are unhappy about, because no-one seems to have understood so far.

They then start to think and say things like:Are they stupid? - and that's where the complainant's labelling comes in.....other labels can include 'morons', 'incompetents', 'faceless bureaucrats' etc. You get the picture.

And still the complainant doesn't get listened to because now they have gained a 'reputation' (another name for a label, in this context). Those who deal with the complainant think :

Why bother even trying to listen when we know what's coming because Fred in Customer Services told us what she's like.

Put the blocks up, try to avoid meeting her, whatever is needed to put off the 'Serial Complainer', when what is really being avoided is not the person but the behaviour that is, at present, too difficult to handle.

But that can change......

A colleague of mine who mediates for us at Hillingdon Community Mediation, where I work, described to me how she was once asked to respond to a letter from a 'Serial Complainer' at the place where she works. The complainant had already gained their reputation amongst staff at all levels and had 'upset' them, and it had now been escalated to the organisation's Chief Executive, needing a response.

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The letter was passed to my colleague to answer on the CE's behalf because it was known she practices the 'arcane art' of mediation.

She explained to me how she sat down and, piece by piece, responded to all the different points raised in the complainant's letter,explaining the organisation's reasons for acting in the way they do in the various situations. From her description, she seemed to find it a pretty straightforward process.

I am unable to give more specific detail as the situation is confidential but basically the complainant responded with a gracious, thankful letter and pursued her complaint no further.

In fact she expressed an interest in becoming more associated with the organisation!

So how did that work?
One of the things that frequently happens in a complaint is that it is taken personally by the person who hears it or reads it. This almost immediately leads to a shutting down of listening.

Why would we listen if we think the person is criticising us directly and personally? They may even use words and phrases that sound like they are criticising us directly. It's understandable that we might shut down when we believe that it is personal.

This often means that the recipient of the complaint is less likely to take the time to explore further, through questions, what the complainant is unhappy about. If it is painful to hear the things said, then why would they open themselves to hearing more?

And that's where our challenge lies if we are to learn a more effective response.

In these situations, we need to consider:
Quotation Corner:
Defence is the first act of war. - Byron Katie

  • What is leading me to hear these things personally?
  • Even if things are said that way, why do I 'let them in'?
  • Can I hear what is said and understand that, this way of saying things is this persons way.

The message they are trying to convey is an unhappiness about the service or product we are providing. We may not have actually done anything wrong, but that doesn't mean we can ignore what is being said to us. It's unlikely to go away if we do, so...........

The next challenge is to acknowledge that hearing more, even if we don't like what we think will be said, is actually more likely to resolve the situation, for BOTH of us, than by ignoring it.

As has been considered before in these newsletters and on the website, instead of treating the conflict as a problem to be avoided, we can try to treat it as an opportunity for learning and/or connection and/or insight?

Recommended Books

This book reveals the power, the beauty and the reverence for others that exists within the simple act of listening. If you want to understand what is meant by mindful communication - read this!


We can listen to (or read) what is said with an enquiring approach, trying to understand why they might have experienced what they did, even if we don't agree with what they have said, and then we summarise back to them what they have said to show we have heard them and to check we have understood them as far as we are able. (Using their words not ours).

In the case of a letter response we can refer to the things they have said directly, as my colleague did in her letter, trying to give an explanation of our response to each point raised in the complaint.

At all times, if we understand the importance of remaining as impartial in our view of their complaint as possible, we are unlikely to argue with the person, or reject what they have said and we are very likely to gain their trust and appreciation for our efforts to listen to them and take them seriously.

Even if we don't agree with what they are saying, we are acknowledging that they did have the experience they had and we do respect that they have a different view of this to us.

I have emphasised twice that we do not have to agree with what someone has said when they complain but we can still listen. It is often considered that to hear without challenging something someone has said is to implicitly agree.

In order to resolve a conflict, we are not dealing with 'agreeing or disagreeing' or 'wrong or right'. We may never come to a shared view on that. We are dealing with the fact that we have different experiences of something and we are acknowledging that this is so, and are trying to find a shared outcome that accomodates both of our experiences without us being in continuous opposition to each other.

It is a co-operative not adversarial response. I have described often how a competitive approach to conflict never resolves it. The same recognition is being applied here.

And so, to the final aspect of responding to someone who is a 'Serial Complainer'. By now we have managed to remain in their presence without storming out or rejecting out of hand their accusations/complaints/concerns.....whatever word we use to describe their complaint. We have genuinely listened to their views, we have summarised their views back to them to ensure we have heard them correctly and so that we can try to understand their perspective.

Free e-book

Contemplations on Communication and Conflict (click the link to download) - an archive of some of the early observations and anecdotes I have written for these newsletters, but now collected together in a free downloadable e-book, my aim being to make them more accessible than to have to scan through various web pages to read them.

We then ask them more questions to find out ways in which we can resolve our differences. We've managed to see that we haven't been destroyed by the things they say, we are still breathing..... and so we pursue our questions with an intention of trying to find a way of resolving this situation to their satisfaction AND ours.

We are not 'licking ass', we are not 'giving in', we are trying to find a way that works for us both that responds to their dissatisfaction but which also fits our needs and is within our capacities to respond.

I can't specify here what that will be in any given situation. But in many situations, the simple willingness to try is enough for many to feel their complaint and the accompanying difficult feelings have been taken seriously.

We have learned how to respond to a Serial Complainer, and, magically, the Serial Complainer doesn't exist any more.

They have turned into an individual and unique human being who we have engaged with, shared different understandings of the world with and co-operated with to accommodate those different understandings.

They may 'change', we may 'change'. But we may not. What matters is that we have found a way of merging our different understandings rather than using them to hit each other with.

There is no such person as a Serial Complainer, only a form of behaviour WE find difficult and have not found an effective way of responding to.


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Besides being the author of the Communication and Conflict website Alan is Director of CAOS Conflict Management Tel. +44 20 3371 7507

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Training courses for 2009: (This link now goes to the CAOS Conflict Management Training page)

Learning from Difficult Relationships: This is the foundation course that covers the Principles of Effective Communication that have been developed from insights gained from the practice of mediation - a process that helps people to resolve their disputes. Next dates to be announced.

Other workshops that follow on from this are: These courses are run by Hillingdon Community Mediation in West London, UK.

Effective Communication Skills – this workshop looks at the skills required to practice effective communication in any context, with our partner, our children, in the workplace, anywhere. Next dates to be announced.

Learning to Grow through Conflict – there are 3 main ways in which people respond to conflict. Two of them never work in resolving a conflict, the third one does. This workshop raises our awareness of where we use the first two and how we can respond more constructively to conflict and see it as an opportunity for growth. May 9th 2009.

Venue for all Workshops:

St Andrew's Church Centre, Mount Park Road, Ealing, London, W5 2RS

Click here for more details. (link now goes to the CAOS Conflict Management training page)

For those of you who share my joy in hearing Byron Katie and in practicing The Work - her 4 simple questions and turnaround that help us review our thoughts in order to find a greater sense of peace and happiness - this fascinating, spontaneous interview with Katie at one of her 9 day Schools is very special:

To see more inspirational videos - click here!

Consultation via Skype.

Would you like:

  • Conflict coaching to support you in a difficult situation to find more effective ways of responding?
  • Mentoring, if you are a Mediator or other conflict resolution practitioner, to support you in reviewing and developing your practice?

If you have Skype and would like to arrange a consultation, please go to the Skype Consultation page to send me details of what you would like to discuss and proposed times to call me.

Skype to Skype calls are free from anywhere in the world so there will not be any telephone cost, just the fee for the consultation which is a fixed charge per minute.

Don't have Skype? Click on this small banner to find out more about it:

Some links that you may find interesting...... by Stephanie Goddard - a website very much in line with the thinking of this site. Stressed Out at Work AGAIN? Work Stress Is NOT Caused By -Your Difficult Coworkers - Your Diet - Your Lack of Time...So What Causes Work Stress? Stress is caused by only one thing....the way you think. Stephanie has 2 great books: 101 Ways to Have a Great Day at Work and 101 Ways to Love Your Job is an excellent resource of information relating to mediation. There are articles, links to websites and blogs as well as the possibility of locating mediators in your area. - is a comprehensive guide to information about Self Improvement, Personal Growth and Self Help on the Internet. It is designed to be an organized directory, with articles and references to thousands of other Web Sites on the World Wide Web. is a rich source of information, quotes and support to enable us to find and be true to ourselves.

Oh Wow This Changes Everything is a great site with an enormous number of links to articles about different aspects of effective communication and conflict resolution. Definitely worth a could be there for hours! helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

New This site is sooo full of great links and resources relating to Co-operative Communication skills - I would very much recommend it.

Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Aik Saath This is an amazing and interesting website, quite besides the work of Aik Saath that it promotes. Aik Saath works to promote conflict resolution skills in young people and the development of peace and racial harmony in Slough, UK and its surrounding areas.

Would you like to build your own website?.....this is how I built mine... I Love SBI!

So, how did you like it?

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