Thoughts on how to complain

Sylvia Rose writes about how to bring up issues if your needs are not being met.

Firstly, it may help to see it not as “complaining” but as a somewhat more constructive process. And for that you may need to be clear in advance what you want the outcome of your complaint to be. Often when people complain they’re splurging their anger at something that’s just happened. That may be useful and it may be what you need, but it doesn’t usually help you in getting heard. Venting your frustrations may be better done on Facebook.

Something has happened which you think shouldn’t have. Do you want to give feedback to help make sure that it doesn’t happen again? Do you want to appeal an unfair decision? Do you want some form of apology or compensation? It helps to choose your strategy. And if your brain is inclined to be hazy (mine often is) it’s worth listing beforehand the points you want to cover, and what responses you are asking for.

Knowing your rights helps, be it disability rights, consumer legislation, whatever (see my previous post). This info is fairly easily accessed online, and it’s worth knowing what grounds you stand on before taking on an unsympathetic organisation.

And how you actually communicate can play a large part in how successful you are in getting your points across. It helps to aim to be assertive, not aggressive or aggrieved. If you can, watch your body language, your vocabulary (keep it polite) and your tone of voice. In my experience, nothing spoils your chance of being listened to as much as sounding shrieky and high-pitched. Aim for calm and reasonable. And in the interests of this, listen well to them as well. Acknowledge that they are human too, try to see where they are coming from, as well as not losing sight of your own agenda.

In addition to formal situations of complaint, there are innumerable ones where, as people with disabilities, we have to stand up for our rights to be different, often with people we like and respect, and who runs groups or rituals we want to still be welcome at. This may take more subtlety. Firstly, I find it helps to really deep-down believe in disability rights as important, and that in challenging someone’s “ableism” I’m arguing not just for my own good but for that of everyone who comes after me who could find themself in a similar situation. Often these are times when we can’t change what’s just happened, but we could help avoid it happening again. But only if we make our case in a way that can be heard.

There is a Buddhist saying that all speech should first pass through three gates: “is it true”, “is it necessary” and “is it kind”. This can be a helpful reminder.

Non Violent Communication theory is another way of helping us look at how we ask for things to be changed. It runs roughly along the lines of: name the issue, say how you feel, say what you’d like changed. So maybe “when you tell us all in ritual to stand up, I feel embarrassed because I can’t. Perhaps in future you could take that into account”. Not “you make me feel horrible about myself because I can’t stand for long”.

Starhawk has written in The Empowerment Manual that many problems in groups can be helped by having a group commitment to feedback as a useful process. This means both finding ways of giving it, as kindly as possible, and being open to receiving it too, in the interests of all learning to work better together for our common purpose. People don’t know what disability feels like unless we tell them.
Donald Engstrom-Reese, another Reclaiming teacher, has put together what is my favourite guide to critique. Before you speak, ask yourself: is this feedback given with the other person’s permission? Am I speaking for myself not for unspecified others? Am I saying this at a good time and place, not just when it occurs to me? Am I specific and clear? Am I focusing on something that can actually be changed (because if not, there’s not much point)? Is my intention to be helpful, not just to sound off about how I feel? And am I open to receiving feedback in turn, because if I’m not, it’s a bit hypocritical of me? http://wearewalkinginbeauty.org/Walking_in_Beauty/Sustainable_Critique.html

These things are of course not easy, especially in the heat of the moment. And disability needs are so shockingly ignored that often we are right to be angry about it. But let’s also remember that as Pagans we can see the bigger picture, and hold our intent of moving things forward in the best way for everyone.

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