Being heard when you complain

Stephen Marsh Mormon 23 Comments

I came home one day from Sacrament meeting and my wife had a sheet of paper, on official church stationary, titled “First Presidency Statement on Birth Control.”  It had been passed out in Relief Society with instructions not to mention it to husbands.  The statement seemed somewhat suspect, though I had a good idea of its actual author and why it had been promulgated the way it had been.  It wasn’t long until there was a visit from Salt Lake and the matter was resolved.  No one ever gave me any problems as a result of my complaint about the incident.  What I did, anyone can do, more or less.  It involves how to be heard rather than ignored.

I took a copy of the letter and mailed it to Salt Lake, addressed to a committee (whose name has probably change by now).  Basically I said “When I was in law school, I was asked if I ever came across something that appeared to be put out as an official Church statement to forward it.  I’m not sure if this is what was meant or not, but I’m sending it in.  It came home from a meeting at Church this week.  Thanks for your patience.  Sincerely yours, SM.”  That was it.  I think it illustrates the point though.

First, I took a slightly understated approach and did not overstate any fact.  If what is going on is wrong, then it speaks for itself.  This thing sure did.  Nothing I could say about it could do anything but blunt the impact.

Second, I did not blame anyone for the statement or for passing it out.  I did not identify the guy whose stationary was used, the guy he passed it to, the local guy who shared it or anyone else.

Third, I did not tell anyone what to do with the problem.  I didn’t even say it was a problem.

Something similar happened recently.  A poster reported that he had been told to keep his new Stake President in the dark about something because there was an ongoing criminal case, etc.  I happened to know that the policy was not that a Stake President was to be kept in the dark but that the Stake President should do nothing to discourage criminal prosecution.  I mentioned it and was given someone’s e-mail, direct phone line and asked to have them contact him immediately so he could make certain that the mistake was cleared up and that the attorney who was explaining things got a lesson in clarity.  (Yes, the information was passed along to someone who has privileges to access e-mail on postings in order to send the contact information onward.  I don’t have that access, btw).

What did I do?  I merely mentioned that someone reported that they thought they had been told not to inform the new Stake President, that he should be kept in the dark about the issue.  I was understated about it.  Did not blame anyone (other than to say that is what they understood from talking to the Church’s attorney).  I did not suggest anything.

Now I don’t complain often.  I’ve complained once in my current stake, got an apology (much to my surprise) and an immediate change in behavior from people who are, honestly, doing their best to do their best.  But the people I talked to knew that I liked them, I support them, and I care about them.  Again, I was understated, I let the issue speak for itself.  I did not blame anyone in particular for a trend that had evolved.  I did not tell anyone what to do.  But it was “Gee, have you noticed …” – once they did notice they reacted immediately, faster than I would have.  But then, they are good men.

Me.  Currently I show up to meetings.  Support my wife in her callings.  Teach a lesson every other month.  Do my hometeaching most of the time.  But I’m no one of particular importance.

However, I’ve seen lots of failed complaints.  I’ve known people who regularly complain and who get ignored even more often (unless they get called to the position they’ve complained about.  I know one brother who did not quit complaining fast enough and ended up in the new bishopric when he had been complaining about the old one.  I warned him that might happen).  Failed complaints tend to have a similar pattern.

First, they are overstated.  They do not rest on incontrovertible facts that cannot be contested.

Second, they blame someone.

Third, they have definite desired solutions that are often presented with the complaint.

Fourth, they are from people who complain often.

Now sometimes solutions are ok, especially for nit picks.  E.g. you know, the sacrament trays really are water spotted.  Would you like me to use silver polish on them once a month?  As long as I’m offering to take care of a problem, and it is “janitorial” type stuff, no one complains.  I suspect if I was to try and make common complaints like that I’d run out of things to complain about (or become the new best friend of the agent bishop).  But otherwise, being heard includes being heard to ask about rather than being heard to tell about or being heard trying to dictate to.

I’d like to suggest that if you have a problem being heard when you complain, that you consider which pattern you fall into and then make the adjustments necessary to be heard when it matters.  Otherwise, what  you really intend is not to be  heard at all.

Comments

comments

Comments 23

  1. Excellent post Stephen

    I think you were successful partly because you are male, and therefore a priesthood leader, and a lawyer so even without it being stated you probably have come across as someone with more authority than just some plain old joe smoe.

    And I wouldn’t have mentioned you being a lawyer in my response, nor the fact that your a priest hood leader except my Relief Society President was and, is a Lawyer, and yet, when we went in together to complain about my Home-teacher using unrighteous dominion over me,”which he clearly did and we have it in print because he was stupid enough to e-mail to me, he(BP) dismissed the both of us by saying “so and so is just that way.”
    He basically, just dismissed us, as though it was nothing when what he said was out of line and he said it as though he was still the BP

    I guess I’m just envious of your success, because no one has even returned a phone call, nor have they returned an email to discuss the matter.

  2. I think the “not blaming” part is HUGE. Not framing things negatively is more effective as well. As dblock points out, this gets increasingly difficult when it’s between two specific people. How do you bring something up about someone else (after having gone to them directly like she did) and be acknowledged and helped, without coming across as blaming or negative?

  3. Great advice Stephen. I’m a firm believer in non judgemental complaining. 🙂 Its served me well over the years also.

    It can be hard to do though when you are passionate about the issue at hand. Anger or indignation can make the task of understating an issue a little challenging. On these occasions I just have to keep reminding myself that I would rather have action and resolution than simply a chance to vent.

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    I would rather have action and resolution than simply a chance to vent. Amen.

    I appreciated all the comments.

    I’ll have to think about the “so and so is just that way.” — that is, when a leader says “xyz is a jerk, a hopeless jerk and there isn’t much I can do about the idiot, given how few people we have in the branch and how hopeless he is.” That is a continual problem everywhere, a shortage of people.

  5. Knowing and manipulating effectively within the system is really what this post calls for — not a totally bad thing and very lawyerly. Get what you want without making waves and without alienating yourself from the community. As a utilitarian philosophy for those who wish to get along well within the current Church social structure it is great advice. Be smart, effective and use the church power structure to get what you want. Don’t gussy it up in “look how Christian I am” though. I recall some scripture somewhere about being offended and going directly to the offending party, not going over his head and bringing the weight of authority on him.

    The great changes always come from vocal complaining and dissent, never from the silent, top down manipulation — that is for maintaining the status quo. If Joseph Smith had kept quiet about his beef with other religions, would any of us be here? History shows again and again that vocal minorities seeking to correct injustice create conflict, but they also create change (Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, etc.) Just remember that if you stay silent, nothing is going to change.

  6. Stephen

    I sat an talked with a friend of mine about this post,(she is also a member) we’ve concluded that the other reason that you received a response is because of the subject matter, in addition to the fact the wives were counseled not to discuss the matter with their respective husbands. This is a big no! no! in church doctrine.

    In my case, even though I was respectful in tone and tenor I was told to dismiss it and not to say anything more to My home teacher about the matter, which is funny, because the church has distinct policy about abuse as well. I guess it just depends on who you are, as to why some people are allowed to get away with things in any particular Branch, or ward.

  7. A major problem many people have when complaining is that they slip and fall into the same pattern as those with borderline personality disorder. In any hierarchical group there are always a flood of people trying to communicate around the lines of authority. Much of it consists of “I know there is some discretion in how things are handled, but surely this choice is so stupid you should overturn it” or “I don’t know the real facts, but a relative of a friend of a friend’s acquaintance passed along ….” sort of stuff.

    That honestly creates a flood of noise. Not to mention that there are people who are crusty kvetchers (like A. Bunker, only, perhaps, a bit more charming). That creates a wall of white noise. Getting heard through the white noise is difficult.

    Ulysseus — I was writing about how to be heard within the system. I’ve a prior post on being a prophet and how to do it. Which is what it takes to take the lead on an issue and be heard. http://mormonmatters.org/2010/05/27/on-becoming-a-prophet-small-p/

    Of course you have to be willing to pay the price to do that. Most people aren’t. The great changes always come from vocal complaining and dissent — I’d say Erasmus was as effective, if not more so, than Luther. But both had to be willing to be prophets. Both were looking for Cchanges rather than a cchange.

  8. “First, they are overstated. They do not rest on incontrovertible facts that cannot be contested.” I think this is a huge one. And this is different in my workplace where the emotion alone is justification for us to listen to the complaint (be it from a customer or employee). But in the church, emotion just clouds the issues. The church doesn’t really operate like a company (for all complaints to the contrary). It may be large & sometime bureaucratic, but it also relies on volunteers at the local level with varying levels of skill.

    “Second, they blame someone.” This is very hard for people to avoid doing. And again, when you complain to a company they want to know who is responsible because it makes it easier to isolate the problem. But that doesn’t work in this environment.

    “Third, they have definite desired solutions that are often presented with the complaint.” This one is interesting to me because again, it’s kind of the opposite of what people are advised when they complain about things in their company or to a company they do business with. But I think it’s a great point.

    “Fourth, they are from people who complain often.” This one holds true forever and in every organization. If you are the boy who cried wolf, your voice is marginalized. You can’t be the “voice of the people.” The people can’t have a single interpreter. Nobody will listen to a chronic complainer.

  9. #10: “Of course you have to be willing to pay the price to do that. Most people aren’t. The great changes always come from vocal complaining and dissent — I’d say Erasmus was as effective, if not more so, than Luther. But both had to be willing to be prophets. Both were looking for Cchanges rather than a cchange.”

    Amen.

    On the other hand, nobody should be a nattering nabob of negativity. The Chinese empire had a policy where a low-ranking bureaucrat had the right to send a complaint to the Emperor — providing that he committed suicide. That ensured that nobody criticized lightly, or for personal aggrandizement. (It also may explain why China stagnated so spectacularly from about 1300-1900.) So maybe we shouldn’t be quite that leery of being heard outside official hierarchical channels, but we should definitely stop and question the real reasons for our criticism.

  10. Stephen and hawkgirrl

    Love! love! love! this post, I feel like it could have been written for me, though I know it wasn’t.

    The problem (for lack of a better word) lies in the fact that while you had a general complaint because of something that was written and it focused on church policy it was much easier to deal with.

    This post, and others like it, tend to deal in the Academics, and or theory about how and why things happen in the church. That’s good, but I tend to deal in the every day application of the actual theory. Even though I have a college education, I’m not an Academic and I never will be. I like using the things that I learn from reading, either these post or anything dealing with scripture in the here and the now.

    The only difference between your problem is the fact that there was an actual name put to the problem. That wasn’t my fault, he put it there. While you were able to hide your name, I was not. In addition, your problem was easy because as I said it had to do with church policy. While the root of my problem had to do with church policy it gets murkier when it gets to issues of abuse ane while I understand that the church is not trained in these areas, Stake Presidents should not automatically defer to the BP side when these issues arise which is exactly what was done.

    I was marginalized even before I was herd, precisely because my home-teacher was the former BP and it has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not likely to forget, because the church tell us specifically to watch out for abuse, but when it happens, leadership pretends like they don’t know what’s going on.

  11. @ulysis

    I happen to agree with you up to a point. There are some personality types that you would not be able to do this with. (i.e)passive-aggressive types for one. they want to say something to you and your suppose to listen to them, but then you challenge them and they still want to insist that they are right in there original statement. Confrontation with these people are not construction. There needs to be someone in a position of authority over them to tell them they are wrong. Even then they will argue

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    dblock, the people I dealt with were the audit committee. I seriously suspect that they were not the people who it ended up with, it was just the address I found easily (this was before the internet was anywhere near as useful as it is now — more than twenty years ago).

  13. dblock
    whether or not your ward community will set forth appropriate boundaries – this does not stop you from being able to do so. You have every right to let the bishop know that you request a change in who your home teachers are, and that until that is done, your current home teacher will not be welcome in your home. Being able to state this directly, calmly and simply will only help your cause.

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  15. I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping for some advice. I just found out that in my little sister’s stake youth dances (she’s 17), they make the girls kneel on the floor if they suspect their dresses do not quite hit the “appropriate” spot on the knee. “They” generally being the male leaders. I am so, so upset by this and find it wrong in so many ways and for so many reasons. I was about to write a letter to the stake president in question, but I’m so genuinely disturbed by this that I just can’t seem to get it down effectively. I remembered reading this post a while back and was hoping for a little advice as to if a letter would even be appropriate in these circumstances, and what it might look like if any of you were the one writing it.

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    TA, I suspect they are missing the entire symbolism of making people kneel and seeing it as just a way to check if the dress will reach the floor.

    It would be tempting to suggest you write a letter telling the State President that there is a rumor of a practice that has the young girls on their knees before male LDS leaders at dances. You are certain that no such thing is going on and you would like them to take steps to stop the rumor from spreading.

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