The Gift of Complaints

I want to share something I found pretty cool about turning a complaint around and into a memory that will last a lifetime.  I spent the holiday with my in-laws – my fiancée’s (Kerri) parents, and her brother’s (Eric) family, and his mother-in-law.  Everyone there had in-laws of some sort.  All of us save her parents were sharing a vacation house. 

It could sound like I’m writing a recipe for disaster.  If your mind was headed in that direction, let’s go somewhere else.  I love hanging out with her family.  Her brother is my age, about my athleticism, likes racket sports, and the house is an 8-minute walk from lit pickleball courts.  His son can play the piano by ear and learn just about any pop-song quickly.  You want to sing along to Party in the USA (as I did)?  No problem.  It’ll be ready in minutes.  The house is on a lake (with a canoe and kayaks) in a wooded sub-division with all sorts of walking trails.  And between everyone’s Christmas gifts, there were three unsolved murder-mystery games. 

I was having a great time and when Kerri’s mom called a family meeting, I didn’t know what to expect.  Family meetings weren’t a thing in the family I grew up in.  My first thought was, oh, cool!  I wonder if we’re all about tell each other what a gift it is to be together…  What else could it be about, given the wonderful time I thought we were all having?? 

It was not a gratitude meeting!  While I was having fun and enjoying myself, Kerri’s mom was cultivating a view of the week’s proceedings that This. Is. Not. Fair.  Some people were doing a lot of the work (cooking, dishes) while other people were not pulling their weight and taking advantage of the doers.  She presented that complaint as the topic for discussion and what unfolded was just what you would expect from people when presented with a complaint that is about them and/or their loved ones – they argued, and people went off to separate parts of the house to simmer.    

This is where years of experience in ACT kicked in.  I’m trained enough that, when I hear a complaint, I smell a value.  Think about it – do you ever complain when you don’t care about something?  Cold weather is only something to complain about when there’s something I want to do outside.  On a day where my agenda is to wear pajamas, watch movies and eat popcorn cold weather is a blessing – a divine justification for having a lazy day. 

The next day I told Kerri I wanted to talk to her mom about the meeting, but really to have a conversation for her having what she really wants – whatever it was she wasn’t getting that would have her experience life like there’s something wrong.  We picked up lunch, took it over to her folks place, and in the space of a few questions, everything turned around.  It turned out her mom didn’t care all that much about whether things were fair or not, what she really wanted was meaningful time with family.  She wanted to play charades and have sing-alongs.  She wanted to make memories. 

And here’s the thing – when I started the conversation, she didn’t even realize that was what she wanted.   All she really knew was that she was hungry for something she wasn’t getting and, feeling that hunger, started looking around for what could be the problem.  She found it in This. Is. Not. Fair. 

Two days later, we were playing charades and I can tell you I will not forget how hard I laughed at what Claire went through to try and get us to say Don Quixote.  I won’t forget what I went through to get them to say the first syllable of Lorax.  And I will never forget Eric’s kids learning to play songs together while the rest of us provided the chorus. 

Want to know what questions?  It’s crazy how simple they are.  Here’s what I asked:

  • If everything were fair and we were all crystal clear it was fair – so we were all pulling our fair share and all had the experience that everyone were pulling their fair share – what would that make available? NOTE – I kept asking this question until something was expressed positively.  In this case – more time to spend together. 
  • If that were there, what would it look like? In this case, it looked like playing games and gathering around the piano to sing. 
  • What’s an action or request you can make that will move toward that?

It really was that easy.  When I asked it, she didn’t even come up with an answer.  Later that evening, however, Kerri got off the phone with her mom and let us all know, “Mom asked if we could have a sing-along on New Year’s.”  And that was that.  Memories made.