Get engaged – complain!

Jessica Topham discovers using complaints can be a starting point for positive engagement and problem solving.

This month, the Tate Modern in London hosted a Complaints Department created and operated by the Guerrilla Girls inviting people to “post complaints about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about.” According to Spiked Online, “After a couple of days, the boards were full of complaints about everything from elitist art collectors to low wages for cleaners, from the lack of affordable housing to the misuse of the apostrophe. The boards created a silent, confused, colourful cacophony of grumbling.”

Complaining is a good place to start a conversation – getting things off our chests and letting go of our gripes. It can be comforting to let off steam and find common ground in our bad experiences of a situation, service or product. In an engagement scenario, should we be wary of complaints? Do they belong in engagement or should they be directed elsewhere, to a department built for responding to such things with procedures and protocols?

I would argue that complaints can help engagement professionals to understand what’s not working and what could be done better. It can help us to understand people’s concerns and motivations, and to build better plans and design better places. It’s also an opportunity for us to empathise and discuss solutions. Even if your community doesn’t have a complaint per se, ask them what they’re worried about, what they don’t like about where they live, or what they’d change; and a positive discussion about aspirations will follow.

But can engagement sometimes be hijacked by complaints, and driven down a negative path of ranting? Should we encourage complaining as a way to let go of the negative, and how then do we guide the conversation to achieve positive outcomes?

A local government client recently highlighted to me that the need to distinguish between people who want to engage in meaningful discussion and those who want to complain about something. Perhaps those with complaints should indeed be directed to those with the authority and responsiveness to deal with the issue promptly and professionally. Online channels are used every minute of the day to complain about things – it’s quick, easy and can be anonymous; and it’s also incredibly powerful in terms of rapidly spreading the word. Increasingly, people are taking to Twitter and other platforms to complain about companies, using the company handle and provocative hashtags to publically ‘shame’ organisations into a prompt resolution.

But what happens once the complaint is dealt with? I think that those with complaints probably should be ‘managed’ through whatever the right procedure may be to reach a satisfactory resolution, but that the root of the issue could also be a great starting point for engagement and problem solving.

Using cathartic story telling to share and understand bad experiences and then inviting ideas via a brainstorm to solve these problems can be an excellent way to take complaints and find workable solutions. I say that rather than complaints being left ‘silent and confused’ like the Guerrillas Girls’ exhibition, or simply dealt with by a faceless department under pressure from social media exposure, we turn something intrinsically negative (and very British!) on it’s head and harness the opportunity to improve things, engaging the complainant at the very core of the problem solving process.

Photo: Christian Battaglia/unsplash/cc

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