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How to Complain Effectively and Get What You Want

complain effectivelyYou’ve probably heard the advice to stop complaining. However, complaining can be a powerful means for achieving important ends. That is, it can help you to change unsatisfying situations and to get what you want.

Instead of making a resolution to stop complaining, what you need to do is the following:

  • Stop complaining about things you can do nothing about.
  • Stop complaining simply as a way to let off steam and vent your frustrations.
  • When a situation warrants a complaint, make sure that you complain effectively.

There are many situations in which complaining can lead to positive results. Here are three examples:

  • You purchased a product which is not working as advertised and you want a refund.
  • You have a co-worker who’s constantly taking credit for your ideas, and you want their behavior to stop.
  • Your significant other is usually running late, so you regularly miss the start of movies, lose your dinner reservations, keep your friends waiting, and so on. You want them to learn how to better manage their time so that they’ll stop making you late for everything.

In this post you’ll discover how to complain effectively so that you can get what you want. When you’re going to complain, make sure that you follow these seven principles:

  • Be Specific About the Issue that You Want to Address
  • Be Very Clear On What You Want to Achieve
  • Make Sure that You’re Complaining to the Right Person
  • Take the Emotion Out of It
  • Be Prepared
  • Use the Sandwich Approach
  • Try to Make It a Win-Win Situation

Each of these principles is explained below.

Be Specific About the Issue That You Want to Address

When you’re going to complain you need to be very specific about what it is that you’re complaining about. Exactly what is it that’s bothering you or making you unhappy? Be direct.

In addition, address one complaint at a time. For example, if you’re going to complain to your spouse because you feel that they’re not doing their fair share of the housework, don’t muddy up the waters by adding other issues to your complaint. There may be other issues on your mind, but right now you’re just going to address the housework issue.

Be Very Clear On What You Want to Achieve

Before voicing your dissatisfaction, you need to be very clear on exactly what it is that you want to achieve by complaining. That is, you need to have a goal. What has to happen in order to make you feel that the issue has been resolved to your satisfaction?

Here are some examples of goals that you could set when voicing a complaint:

  • Get a refund.
  • Get a replacement.
  • Get a discount.
  • Get the other person to take a specific action.
  • Get an apology.
  • Draw up a game plan on how to prevent the situation that’s bothering you from happening again in the future.

Keep in mind that you need to make sure that what you’re asking for is realistic.

Make Sure That You’re Complaining to the Right Person

In order to achieve a positive result from your complaint, you need to make sure that you’re complaining to the right person.  Once you’ve decided what you want to achieve by complaining, find out who has the authority to give it to you. Try asking the following: “Who do I need to talk to in order to . . . ?”

Take the Emotion Out of It

When there’s an issue which you feel warrants a complaint, it’s very likely that there are negative emotions surrounding the issue. For example:

  • You’re frustrated over the fact that the shoes that you bought online are the wrong color.
  • You’re angry because your neighbor’s dog keeps waking you up at night with all that barking.
  • You’re sick and tired of finding the sink overflowing with your roommate’s dirty dishes.

If you become overly emotional while you’re voicing your complaint, it’s less likely that you’ll get what you want.  You don’t want the other person to feel like they’re being attacked, because that will make them defensive. Then, instead of thinking of ways to help you resolve your complaint, they’ll be thinking of ways to escape from your emotional barrage.

The best way to prevent your emotions from overwhelming you is to pretend that you’ve been hired to resolve the issue at hand for someone else.  By taking a third person perspective you’ll be getting some distance from the problem so that you can look at it objectively, and so that you won’t take things so personally.

In order to make your communication as effective as possible, adhere to these four guidelines:

  • Stay calm.
  • Don’t raise your voice.
  • Make your tone as civil as possible.
  • Don’t be aggressive or insulting.

Be Prepared

Be prepared with any facts or data that will back up your complaint. Here are some examples:

  • Have your sales receipt at hand.
  • Gather any evidence that proves your claim.
  • Be ready with any documents you might need.

Being armed with knowledge gives you authority and makes it more likely that your complaint will be taken seriously.

Use the Sandwich Approach

You’ve probably heard of the sandwich approach when it comes to giving others criticism:

  • Say something positive.
  • State your criticism.
  • End on an encouraging note.

That is, you place the criticism between two positive communications. Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem, recommends that you apply the same approach in order to complain effectively.

For example, suppose that you and your significant other have decided to move in together.  You notice that they keep leaving their used tea bags on the kitchen counter instead of throwing them in the trash. Here’s how to complain effectively about the tea bags by using the sandwich approach:

  • Initiate the conversation by saying something positive, such as the following: “I’m so happy that we’ve moved in together, and that we’re both looking for ways to accommodate each other’s needs.”
  • The meat of the sandwich is your complaint: “I did want to talk to you about your tea bags. I’ve noticed that you leave them on the counter after you’ve made your tea, and I would like to ask you to toss them in the garbage can instead.”
  • End the conversation by saying something encouraging: “I really want us to continue finding ways to turn this apartment into a warm, inviting home for both of us.”

Try to Make It a Win-Win Situation

I’ve already written before about the TV show Frasier. Frasier is about Seattle radio psychologist Dr. Frasier Crane. In Episode 7 of Season 5, Frasier is in a store trying to return a purse he bought for his producer, Roz, which she didn’t like. Here’s the exchange between Frasier and the sales lady:

  • Frasier: Hello. I’d like to return this purse.
  • Sales Lady: I’m terribly sorry but this was a sale item and we have a no-return policy.

Frasier makes another effort to get a refund for the purse, but is unsuccessful. A woman shopper overhears the exchange between Frasier and the sales lady and she comes to Frasier’s aid (the woman’s name is Samantha):

  • Samantha: Ah, look, [reads the sales lady’s badge] Jill, we’re all reasonable people here, why don’t you just give this nice gentleman a store credit.
  • Sales Lady: Look, I don’t make the rules.
  • Samantha: Yes, but a shrewd saleswoman such as yourself knows that this business isn’t about rules, it’s about relationships. Now, look at this man, cultured, impeccably dressed, well-to-do, exactly the sort of man you’d love to have a relationship with… Now, there’s only one thing standing in the way of that relationship, Jill, he’s not happy with his purse.
  • Frasier: [interrupting] It’s not MY purse.
  • Samantha: Maybe his purse was the wrong color, maybe it didn’t hold enough.
  • Frasier: [laughing off other people’s glances] It’s not my purse.
  • Samantha: The thing is, if this man walks away today unhappy, he may never shop here again, and who knows what he might have bought in the future; scarves, gloves, hosiery! The choice is yours, Jill, the commission that comes from a lifelong relationship or the hollow satisfaction of knowing you followed the rules!
  • Sales Lady: Okay, I’ll go get the forms.

As Frasier thanks Samantha for helping him out, she adds: “the secret is persistence”. Of course, the real secret is that Samantha helped the sales lady to see how she would also benefit by helping Frasier to resolve his complaint in a satisfactory manner.

You’re more likely to achieve a positive result when you complain if you can frame your request as a win-win for you and for them.


Complaining can be a powerful tool for living your best life and getting what you want.  However, you have to make sure that when you complain, you do so effectively. Start complaining effectively by applying the seven principles explained above.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Keith September 3, 2013, 2:05 am

    Hi Marelisa,

    Nice way of turning complaining on its head 🙂

    I loved the third person approach. So simple but it slapped me in the face with the power of how effective it could be in managing my emotions (I can get a little over passionate about things sometimes, lol).

  • Marelisa September 3, 2013, 2:31 am

    Hi Keith: I’m an attorney and it’s amazing how much more level-headed I am when defending someone else than I am when I’m defending or arguing for myself. Emotions really do get in the way of making an effective argument.

    I’m glad you found the post useful. 🙂

  • Kunjan September 3, 2013, 8:36 pm

    Hi Marelisa,

    I have been meaning to leave a response to your posts for a long time now. I want to let you know that I have LOVED all of your articles and always come back to your website to read the same ones over or ones that I haven’t read before. I read some of your articles many mornings before starting my day. You continue to make me a smarter, better, wiser person through your well thought and well written articles. I am very grateful. THANK YOU!!

  • Marelisa September 4, 2013, 12:14 am

    Hi Kunjan: Your comment is a great compliment. I’m so glad that you’re enjoying my blog posts and finding them helpful, and I appreciate you letting me know. 🙂