How to complain properly

How to complain properly

A carefully-worded complaint can transform a negative into a positive. Here are five ways to switch fault-finding into fix-finding.
Apr 01, 2010

That's not my job." "The boss likes her better." "I do all the work." Sound familiar?

These are just a few of the complaints flying around veterinary practices each day. Besides being plain annoying, whining at work breeds hostility among team members, which ultimately affects client and patient care. You can't just keep your beefs bottled up, but you can soften them by picking your words carefully. Don't think there's a nice—and productive—way to air grievances? Consider these five examples as your translator.

Instead of: "You mean I have to take inventory again?"

Say this: "You mean I get to take inventory again?"

Positive statements go over much better than negative ones. That's because complaining leads to tense work environments. Even brief gripe sessions and minor moans can bring down team morale. "It's really the subtle negativity that can ruin an organization," says Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, a how-to guide for dealing with interoffice conflict. "It's a cancer. If there's a void, negativity will fill it." As pessimism escalates in a practice, job satisfaction decreases. When this happens, team members may leave a job they otherwise loved. Encourage optimism—and discourage turnover—by approaching every task with an upbeat outlook.

Instead of: "You're not pulling your weight."

Say this: "This task wasn't completed. Let's work on a strategy to make sure that doesn't happen again."

Put The No Complaining Rule to work
The greatest source of conflict at Trinity Animal Hospital in Weaverville, Calif., is the perception that someone is slacking off, says practice manager Angela Green, even if that someone is usually a good worker. To keep the practice running smoothly, Green encourages team members to stop moaning about unfinished work and instead, do something about it. People either do the tasks themselves or we develop a system to ensure they get done in the future, Green says.

Staff meetings are great opportunities to brainstorm, set, and evaluate protocols to solve these types of problems, says Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, a partner at VMC Inc., in Evergreen, Colo. At your next team gathering, take a poll on which tasks are falling to the wayside and how you can work together to reel them back in. And don't forget that staffwide sit-downs are also the prime time to issue praise for team members who go above and beyond their duties.

Instead of: "The front desk has it so easy."

Say this: "Working with animals can be tough, but interacting with clients all day must also be difficult."

Bonds often form between team members within different sections of the hospital, creating turfs and turf wars, says Dr. Jim Kramer, CVPM, co-owner of Columbus Animal Hospital in Columbus, Neb. To prevent hostility from mounting between the front and back staffs, Dr. Kramer suggests taking a minute to consider what co-workers in these different roles bring to the practice. Offering excellent customer service is just as important to a practice's success as providing top-notch care—and vice versa. Take this notion a step further by following Dr. Kramer's recommendation to train new employees in many areas of the practice. Doing so gives them a better appreciation for the work their peers do.

Instead of: "Becky's so rude. I'm glad my contact with her is limited."

Say this: "Becky is a highly-focused worker. What traits could I learn from her?"

Just because Becky doesn't smile when you pass her in the hall, doesn't mean she's, well, mean. She may be lost in thought about how to update the practice's invoices. Non-verbal cues can be confusing, so give co-workers the benefit of the doubt, Grosdidier says, and don't try to overanalyze every interaction. Instead, work on your own communication skills and look for contributions or attributes of co-workers that you appreciate or want to emulate.

If the cold shoulder you're getting isn't a matter of miscommunication but the result of an underlying conflict between you and a co-worker, take action. "If you go very long without talking to someone whom you have a relationship with, hostility builds up. Small annoyances become larger and eventually take on a life of their own," Dr. Kramer says. "Once you get people in a room and they communicate, a lot of that ill will goes away."

Instead of: "I'm too preoccupied to wash that dog."

Say this: "This week's been tough, but I'm not going to let it affect my work."

Do your best to leave your personal life outside the practice's front door—even if a personal situation involves co-workers. Doing otherwise could hurt your credibility and the clinic's. For example, if a veterinary assistant who's distracted by a personal problem or a dispute with a fellow team member forgets to bathe a dog—or does it poorly—it could cost the practice a client. "If an animal isn't presentable, it doesn't matter how good of a veterinarian I am," says Dr. Kramer. "I could perform a successful surgery, and if the animal smells like urine when picked up, none of that matters. If you disappoint one person, you've also essentially disappointed every person he or she knows." Stay focused and remember, while at work, clients and patients come first.

Next time a protest is about to roll of your tongue, try to tame it by referring to the above examples. And follow the old adage: If you can't say something nice, at least say it nicely.

Ashley Hopkins is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Send questions and comments to