Expert's Opinion

Speak Up!

By Guy Winch, Psychologist and Author | May 10, 2011

Guy Winch on how to speak constructively when someone upsets you.

Ask yourself this question: Do you tend to speak up if a client, customer, friend, colleague or loved one disappoints you or hurts you feelings? Most people tell me they do. However, the reality is that such assertions are only partially true. We might voice a complaint when we’re upset with someone but we rarely voice it directly to the person who upset us.

Think of a recent incident in your own life—did you speak up to the person in question?

Our reluctance to voice our complaint in such situations is entirely understandable. Most of us are not fond of confrontation and certainly such discussions have the potential to become just that. In addition, if the person is our superior at work or an elderly relative, we might decide it isn’t worth speaking up. The problem is that by choosing not to do so, we give the other person the non-verbal message that whatever it is they did that upset us—is in some ways acceptable.

Many of us resort to passive aggressive behavior in such situations. We might avoid the person or delay returning their calls, texts and emails. Such tactics might communicate we’re upset with the person; but by not discussing the issue with them directly we’re also communicating that we are willing to tolerate whatever it is they did that upset us.

The reality is that even when the person suspects they might have upset us, they are likely to be clueless as to what exactly it was. When I speak to groups about this issue, it is common for someone to object to this assertion by raising their hand and…speaking up—which of course I encourage. They then point out that surely our spouses, family members and close friends know us well enough to be aware when and how they upset us.

Although it is natural for us to assume that to be so—it is usually not the case.

Human communication is far less accurate than we think. What one person intends to say or to communicate is not necessarily what the other person hears. These days, with so much of our communication occurring electronically via email, text messages or social media, and without tone or inflection to inform us, miscommunications happen more than ever.

So what are we to do?

We tend to think of speaking up and voicing a personal complaint as a confrontation—but it should not be. It is entirely possible to discuss such matters with another person in a manner that comes across as friendly, sincere and constructive.

How to Voice a Personal Complaint Constructively:

1. Give them the benefit of the doubt: We should assume the other person is unaware they upset us. First, because such miscommunications are extremely common (even if we have a hard time believing it) and second, if we give the benefit of the doubt to criminals, we can certainly extend that courtesy to our loved ones, friends, colleagues or business associates.

2. Mention only one specific incident. Even if this was not the first time it happened, nothing is gained by generalizing the complaint into a broader criticism and doing so makes the other person more likely to get defensive and respond unproductively.

3. Use I statements. Describe how you felt when something happened without blaming the other person for making you feel that way—remember, they might not have intended to upset you.

4. Leave them a way out. It’s important to make it relatively easy for them to take responsibility and apologize. Doing so makes them less likely to become argumentative and repeat the incident in the future. If we paint them into a corner, they will get defensive and deny any wrong doing. In other words, our goal is not to be ‘right’ but rather to be effective.

For illustration purposes—here is a template of how to express a personal complaint:

“You probably didn’t realize this but when [simple description of the incident] I felt [choose one only: upset, disappointed, hurt, or annoyed]. I know it wasn’t intentional so I thought I should bring it to your attention so we can clear the air and move on.”

Complaints are important interpersonal communications and as such mastering when and how we should speak up can help us in every area of our lives.

About the Author
Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (January 2011 Walker and Company). He can be reached through his website at

Related End-User Markets: