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Every complaint has a wish embedded in it — a wish that something was or will be handled differently.

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• October 20, 2021

Imagine you’re preparing a recipe that calls for two cups of flour. You open your pantry cabinet to retrieve the bag of flour and notice that the top of the bag is half-open.  You’ve seen this before: it’s how your partner always leaves the bag, exposed to the air and, in your view, compromising freshness. You feel irritated. 

You’ve always dismissed making an issue of this and simply closed the bag carefully yourself after you’ve used it. Now you’re considering saying something. Should you? And if you do, what should you say, and what’s the best way to approach it?  

There’s no one best way to voice a complaint although experts agree that there are some useful guidelines to keep in mind (see Complain Skillfully). But with certain kinds of complaints — the open bag of flour is one of them — the best approach is often simply to flip the tense: Turn a complaint, with its emphasis on what was objectionable in the past, into a request, with its emphasis on the future, on what you’d like moving forward. 

“I notice that sometimes wei leave the bag of flour partially open after we’ve used it. Can we make an effort to seal the bag so we preserve the flour’s freshness?” 

Every complaint has a wish embedded in it — a wish that something was or will be handled differently. To flip the tense, it’s best to plan our words before opening our mouths. Suppose, for instance, you are often frightened by your partner’s aggressive driving.  As you leave the house together, you might say: “I’m looking forward to enjoying a pleasant and relaxing car ride. Would you be willing to drive in a relaxed way today?” Instead of complaining about her partner’s past driving, the speaker flipped the tense and asked for what she’d like today.  

Not all complaints lend themselves to flipping the tense, but when they do, it can bring about a welcome outcome for everyone.  

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.
References & Citations

i By using the plural “we” instead of the singular “you,” we can avoid triggering our partner’s defensiveness. When it fits the circumstances, it’s a wise strategy to include ourselves in the message. All it costs us is the ego satisfaction we may feel when we shine a light on our partner’s missteps, and that’s often a price worth paying to preserve harmony in the moment.