‘Negative’ Communications: Complaints vs. Concerns

A lot has been said about the increasing intensity of negative and conflictual conversations in our culture – on television, on radio talk shows, in social media, even in our personal interactions. In reflecting on the numerous challenges facing us in the workplace and our community activities (decisions about school attendance, sports events, social gatherings), it’s obvious that we all have a lot that we can complain about.

Almost simultaneously, I thought: “We are in a space where almost all of us can become overwhelmed with the amount of complaining we hear and the number of concerns we each have.” This led me to the question: “What is the difference between a complaint versus a concern?” We seem to “know it when we hear it,” but practically speaking, what are the differences? So I asked my team; we brainstormed together and came up with the following.


Let’s start off with basic information, the definitions of both terms:

Complaint: something that is the cause or subject of protest or outcry; expressed dissatisfaction or annoyance about something

Concern: to be a care, trouble, or distress to; anxiety, worry


Complaints are generally self-focused. The complaint raised is one that directly affects the one who is complaining (or their peer group). Rarely, do you hear complaints about actions or decisions that impact someone who has no relationship to the one complaining.

Concerns tend to have more of a focus beyond oneself. Frequently, the issue may impact the one sharing the concern, but there may also be worries about the results on others in the organization or community.

Tone of Voice

Complaints are usually communicated with a very negative tone and attitude. They may have an aspect of blame; sometimes they sound angry, while other times they can have more of a whiney tone.

Concerns seem to be communicated in a more controlled way, although there can clearly be an undertone of worry and anxiety. Concerns are typically shared in a calmer, less volatile manner.

Time Focus

Complaints tend to focus on the past – a decision or action that has already occurred, although it may be a past decision that is affecting their life currently or is going to impact the near future. The emphasis on the past action/decision seems to imply, “They screwed up and there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

Concerns may include actions and decisions that have already happened, but the focus really is more about the present and future, with an implied message: “Isn’t there something we can do about this (to keep negative results from occurring)?”


Complaints almost always focus the responsibility for dealing with the situation on someone else. (“They/You need to . . . ). Rarely does the complainer accept responsibility for having any part in creating the problem and, as a result, feels no need to offer to assist in resolving the issue.

Concerns, initially, might be “responsibility neutral.” The communication is (usually) primarily focused on the issue or problem, and the potentially negative results. Who is responsible for the problem and who should deal with it are issues that are worked out over time as the problem is explored to see what the real root of the problem is. Then discussion occurs about the appropriate action steps to take.


Complaints often feel like they are coming from a closed mindset – that the person has already made up their mind and has concluded “this is wrong.” There is really no room for discussion about the issue.

Concerns are usually communicated with a more inquiring, open mindset (“I’m worried that if we don’t . . . , [negative result] might occur. What do you think?”). The person shares their perspective but also is asking for input from others.

Reactions Elicited

Complaints tend to elicit defensive responses from those to whom the complaint is directed because of the style of communication and the extreme, blame-based wording often used (“You never . . . “  “They always . . .”). However, when communicated to other disgruntled individuals, complaints frequently create supportive (and possibly, intensified) responses (“Yea, not only that, they never …”).

Concerns may bring about a variety of responses depending on the viewpoint of the other individual. Defensiveness may occur if they feel there is an implication that they may be to blame or that they should do something to fix the situation. But sometimes an agreement with the concern and a willingness to take a proactive step to address the concern may also occur (“You are right. That is a potential problem that needs to be discussed. Who do you think we should talk to about it?”).

Ok, Now What?

You may be saying to yourself: “Ok, great. I am better able to differentiate between a complaint and concern. Now what? What are the implications for my daily life?” The answer is: It depends.

First, it would be wise to do a self-assessment. Take a moment to reflect on your actions, attitudes and approaches when you communicate frustrations you are experiencing at work. Does your communication lean more toward complaining or sharing concerns?

Next, if you are receptive, ask those around you for input. Have them go over the list of characteristics above and give you feedback on how they experience your communication.

Once you determine your (and maybe your team’s) primary way of communicating, think about some steps you want to take to improve your communication style. Make the action(s) specific.  Write them on a sticky note where you will be reminded. Then take a moment at the end of the day or week, and ask yourself: “How did I do?”

Finally, the big step is this: Focus on finding things you can be grateful for (even related to the distressing situation). Gratitude is the antidote to complaining. One can have realistic concerns and still be grateful, but complaining can’t last long when we take a moment and give thanks for all of the good in our lives (sight, hearing, daily food, music, the beauty of nature …. keep going!)

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