“The registration line's too long.”
“The room is too cold.”
“I'm on a Kosher, vegan, no-salt, low-fat, no-carb diet — I can't believe you don't have anything here I can eat.”
Sound all too familiar? Every meeting's got them, those lovely folks who just love to whine and complain about everything from the plumpness of their pillows to the hygiene habits of the woman sitting next to them on the airplane. It's bad when it's an attendee you have to placate, worse when it's one of your own executives, and worse yet when it's one of your executives' pampered spouses doing the complaining.
Your mission is to deal with them in such a way that they walk away happy — or at least not cursing you. As twisted as it may sound, when you think about it, complainers actually are giving you an opportunity to improve your standing with your organization, and your company's standing with your attendees — if you don't strangle them first, that is.
Fortunately, as Connie Merritt, a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based registered nurse, speaker, coach, and author, told attendees at this year's Insurance Conference Planners Association Educational Forum at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, in July, there are lots of ways to reduce the stress of dealing with the whiners. First, cut them out of the herd and take them somewhere quiet. Then ask them to tell you what's wrong. As they're whining, smile, keep your body open (don't cross your arms), lean forward, touch the person very briefly on the forearm, maintain eye contact, and nod slowly as they go through the litany of complaints. And, as much as it hurts to do it, when they've finished, ask if there's anything else. Then ask again.
Once they've gotten all their beefs out on the table, ask them what they'd like to have happen to resolve their problems, and paraphrase it back to them so they feel heard, said Merritt. Tell them what you will do — not what you want to do! — to resolve their issues. It also helps to use what Merritt calls “fogging phrases,” such as: “Hmmm, it's possible, and …” “You could be right, and …” “That may be true, and ….” No matter how much you're tempted, make sure the phrase includes the word “and,” not the “but” that would come much more naturally. And, of course, act to resolve their complaints. Sometimes all you have to do is acknowledge their pain and fix it (“I hate my room”). Sometimes you have to throw in an apology as well, and tell them how much you appreciate their bringing the problem to your attention.
You just might find that the next time that person comes to you with a complaint, they'll be a little less belligerent, and little more reasonable. If not, at least you'll know how to handle them.