Julie Thorson

Flashing message light. You pick it up and listen to the voice on the other end. You know, the one we all dread: an upset family member or resident. 

My challenge to you during this season of thanks is to rethink those times of complaining because we all have them and let’s be thankful for them. That’s right, I said it. Be thankful for those who complain. 

Let me explain. There is always some truth in a complaint. At least in the perception of those who complain there is their truth. Sometimes all we need to do is listen, acknowledge and apologize. Other times we need to do better and work with our teams. I would rather know about a problem and do something about it rather than not know and let our mistakes build. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. No matter how great your community is, there are going to be mistakes. We are all human, and we make mistakes. No one, no community is perfect. There are opportunities for learning in imperfection. How we choose to approach these challenges is more about leadership. 

In my experience, there are typically three main sources of family/resident complaints: 

  • They are struggling with something bigger than the issue they are complaining about, 
  • they don’t trust us, or
  • we messed up. 

All three sources require a different approach. If you approach each complaint in a similar way, you will add more frustration than necessary. 

However, all complaints require us to actively listen.  Listen without interruption, listen without judgment, and listen without going on the defensive. Too many times I see leaders jump right into defense mode without really listening. Sometimes, the only thing the complainer really needs from us is to be heard. The only thing you may need to actually do is listen and apologize. 

Let’s focus on the complainer who is struggling with something bigger than the issue they are complaining about. Change does strange things to people. Many times loss of control, guilt, sadness or anger is taken out on us. You know what? That’s OK. It’s hard to appreciate or understand, but when you are on the receiving end of someone who is upset, if we keep in the back of our mind that this is about something bigger than us, it makes the complaint easier to swallow. In our communities, change is everywhere. Trying to control it only makes it worse. An understanding ear can go a long way. 

Complainers who don’t trust us. This is a biggie and takes time. I have found that when it comes to this point, there is a long road to hoe. Doesn’t it seem like once one thing goes wrong with someone, more mistakes are made with them? Rebuilding trust with a family or resident takes time and we need to acknowledge our role in the breakdown of trust. 

Guess what? When people complain, sometimes they are right! We make mistakes, we need to do better, a team member may need more education, counseling, coaching. Simply put, we need to spend more time with them. Performance is important. I often thank the complainer for letting me know about the problem. “We can’t fix problems we don’t know about. Thank you for letting me know.” Ending phone calls with this simple statement can go a long way. 

Be thankful for the complainers. They keep us on our toes; they push us to do better, and they remind us why our work is so important. I’m sure there are those who we may feel like we can never make happy, but refer to scenario #1. There is something more going on and they need us. They need us to listen, to be there and to show up. 

This is just scratching the surface, the initial call. Follow-up is so important. Touching base when things are going well is crucial.  Stay tuned for more. Until then, thank the complainers.

Julie Thorson’s was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. Thorson is currently a coach for the Leading Age’s Larry Minnix Leadership Academy.  Her “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and recently completed Leading Age’s Leadership Educator Program.