Intervening in Others’ Complaints

Goal: Build skill at intervening effectively in other people’s complaining conversations

Estimated time: 10–20 minutes

Once you’re comfortable using the intervention strategy in your own conversations, you can try practicing it with other people. Choose two people who talk to each other frequently, and whom you know well (such as business partners who are friends of yours, or a couple you’re close to). Tell them you’re learning a new communication strategy, and ask if they’d be open to having you practice with them.

If they say yes, go through the following steps:

  1. Ask the people to think of an issue that frustrates both of them, and that they feel helpless to change (nothing too serious, just a source of irritation). You might give some examples of issues you’ve worked through yourself, but don’t tell them what you think they should work on. Leave the decision to them.
  2. Ask them to start talking about their issue in the way they normally would, and listen to how the discussion sounds. If you hear complaints, you know this is a good topic to work with. If not, ask them to choose a different topic. Keep trying until you hear them complain.
  3. Have them complain about their issue for one minute.
  4. Teach the strategy: After one of them makes a proposal, the other person can either 1) agree or 2) make a proposal of their own. The process continues until they reach an agreement. Tell them they can increase their chances of success by making proposals that they think the other person might agree to.
  5. Have them use the strategy until they reach agreement. If they get off track (for instance, going back to complaints or giving negative predictions), interrupt and redirect them.

When you’re finished, ask about how this exercise went and how your intervention came across:

  • Did the people find it easy or difficult? Satisfying or unsatisfying?
  • Were your instructions clear?
  • Did shifting from complaints to proposals start to change the way they think and feel about their difficult issue?
  • If you interrupted the process at any point, was that helpful to them?

Use the feedback you get to make each of your attempts at intervening more skillful than the last.

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