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The Complaining Community Member

One of the most common conditions for stuck issues in personal relationships, is the tendency to attempt to resolve emotional issues with cognitive solutions.  This also occurs in communities.  Most people have grown up with significantly more teaching and value placed on how to problem solve, analyze, and otherwise think about things.  So naturally when there is difficulty, this is what comes up.

Most relationship issues, however, are primarily emotional.  They are about needs for caring, connection, trust, being heard, belonging, support, choice, etc.  Cognitive issues are about clarity, learning, and  information.  Emotional issues are often ignored in a deluge of details, stories, information, criticism, problem solving ideas, analyses, explanations, and justifications.  This is typically how conversations with a complaining community member go.

It's not unusual for communities to have a member that mostly expresses complaints and criticism about how the community operates.  It may leave you wondering why this person continues to attend community activities.  They are usually looking for emotional healing, but can't find a direct route.  Tragically, their hope for healing gets lost as they express their needs indirectly through complaints and criticism and then are met with a tangle of arguments about facts or simply ignored.  

When complaints continue and there is no connection, community members experience burn out.  They attempt to move away from what they perceive as reactivity and ill-will.  Reactivity and ill-will is likely present for the person complaining, but underneath that is the genuine need for healing, connection, belonging, or being heard, etc.

When this kind of dynamic has gone on for years in a community, as is often the case, some outside help is usually necessary.  In this case, all community members need help learning to set boundaries around reactivity so that they can give attention to the underlying needs. When community members are neither living in fear of reactivity nor getting distracted by logistical arguments, there is space for genuine caring and emotional attunement.  Even if both parties learn the skills of empathy, honest expression, setting boundaries, and needs based negotiation, someone outside of the situation is typically needed to create and maintain a container of equanimity and compassion that supports healing.  This healing often comes before a community is ready to learn new skills and try something new.

The skill of emotional attunement is essential in any kind of relationship.  Without emotional attunement, community collaboration degenerates into defended arguments in which the quality of connection is lost in favor of attachment to opinions, taking sides, and logistical details.

While complaints from a community member may include all sorts of details, it is not the details that matter.  A complaint is a veiled request regarding a particular need.  Taking the time to identify and honor that need prevents long term suffering.  Attending to a need the moment it arises often takes very little effort and yields the connected collaboration that all communities rely on to thrive.


Take a moment now to identify the last time you complained about something.  Look through the needs list and identify the needs behind that complaint.  If you made a direct request rather than complaining, what would it sound like?


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1 Response

  1. Mar 01, 2018

    Thanks for this LaShelle. Reading and reflection on it, I discovered my longing to support a community I have left from burnout. I'm aware that the leaders of this community have expressed "burnout" issues themselves. I'm thinking of stepping back in. Do you have an recommendations/resources around stepping into leadership? I have a few months to prepare for a new role in my group.

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