Complaining at work is usually a negative and potentially annoying way to communicate with coworkers. We usually do it because we need to create a catharsis by blowing off steam or we want to bond with a coworker over our difficulties. However, if examined correctly, complaints can reveal opportunities for improvement that we may not have recognized before. We also may not realize that the coworker we are talking to could actually help effect the solution. This is why interdepartmental communication is so essential.

How do we examine complaints correctly? I found myself in this situation recently. A coworker and friend from a different department came to me complaining. Normally I just nod, listen, and provide verbal affirmation of how terrible it is, but this time I realized that I could potentially help. Without telling her what I was doing, I began to ask her open-ended questions to drill down to the root of the problem. I wanted to help her see how she could take action to change the issue and how I could help. By the end of the conversation, we had determined that the problem could be solved with improved documentation and training and also by further building customers’ overall trust in our expertise as a company. The second solution would need to be addressed by multiple departments and would take time. The first solution was one I could act on immediately since I am on the technical documentation and training team. I offered to add a statement to the appropriate documentation and ask our training coordinator to address the issue with future customers and train them on how to solve it. We left the conversation with next steps for her to get more specific information for me to add to the documentation.

I could tell she was encouraged that we had left the conversation with steps forward to a solution rather than just a bonding experience. None of this would have happened if I had not begun to actively listen for the opportunity for improvement and began to steer the conversation in the direction of identifying the real problem and ways to solve it. I was curious, so I used the effective model of asking “Why?” until the real problem was uncovered. Getting curious about complaints can lead to more effective interdepartmental communication and problem solving.