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At What Point Does Being Helpful Become Complaining?

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We have a home in Florida that we use as a vacation rental. We do our best to keep it looking and operating at peak efficiency and comfort. We have great guests, and people seem to enjoy their time while on vacation.

Ed and Gretchen were excited to spend a month at our home and promised they would treat our home just like their own. Except, every day Ed and Gretchen sent me an email about what they thought we should do differently.

"Your pool cleaning company doesn't do as good as a job as they should. You should look into getting a new company."

"Your neighbour doesn't cut her grass often enough. You should ask her to keep her lawn neater as it affects your lawn."

"The shower drain doesn't drain very quickly, perhaps a call to the plumber is in order."

And so on.

At first, everything was positioned as being helpful. They knew that we didn't live nearby, and they knew that we wanted the house to be perfect for our guests. The first couple of days the emails didn't bother me. I saw Ed and Gretchen as trying to be helpful.

By day four, it became our daily complaint email. I no longer saw them as being helpful, but as being extremely critical, and somehow indicating that our home was not good enough.

By the end of the month, I dreaded seeing their name in my inbox.

Are you an Ed or Gretchen? Do you see yourself as being helpful, but others see you as being critical?

At work, do you make suggestions such as "If you use a mail merge on that, it will save you a ton of time instead of doing it manually. Do you want me to walk you through how to do a mail merge?" or "You're still using a Times Roman font? That is so 1990s! Didn't you know that you should be using a sans serif font now? I suggest you Google that and make the change."

I'm guessing that when we make comments and suggestions we don't intend to be condescending or critical. However, they are likely to be perceived that way, especially if you do it frequently.

Here are a few ways to ensure that you are helpful, and not being perceived as critical:

Did they ask for your input?

I didn't ask Ed and Gretchen to tell me what was wrong with the house, and at the end of the each daily email, I didn't ask for what else was missing. I said "Thank you. We will look into that."

That closed comment at the end of the discussion was the first clue that I wasn't overly receptive to their unasked for feedback. If you are offering suggestions to others and they aren't asking you for more feedback, stop offering suggestions.

Do you find that you often see what others don't and feel the need to share your observations? That may be perceived as a "know-it-all" by others and will be seen as critical as well.

If you are a consultant and are acting in a consulting capacity, your perceptions are appreciated then (and paid for). If you are not, then, you are likely perceived as a complainer.

I am a consultant, but unless someone asks me for feedback on things, I don't offer that. When I attend a conference, I focus on the positives, not what they could do differently. When I am at a friend's house, I compliment my host, not offer decorating ideas, and when I am working with a coworker, I don't assume I know the best way to do things; I appreciate there are many ways to get things done properly, and my way isn't always the best way.

Can your advice be acted upon by the person you are giving the advice to?

A good friend of mine is keen on customer service. Unfortunately, she offers advice to people who can't do anything about the advice she offers.

Recently at a restaurant, she noticed a few things were not ideal in the restaurant and shared them with our server. When I asked why she bothered sharing it with the server, as she had no control over those things, she responded with "She will tell the manager, and maybe get recognized as having a great idea."

I told her the odds of the server telling the restaurant manager that the menus needed larger print for their older customers were close to zero, and that the server was also not going to tell the manager that the ladies washroom should have a can of air freshener in it either. If she told her manager those things, she would be perceived as being a complainer.

When you make an observation, thinking you are being helpful, ask yourself "Is the person I'm sharing this information with in any position to implement my advice?"

The same is true of telling a store cashier that they need more cashiers working during busy times. They can't do a thing about it, are not likely to bring that information to their boss; and you will be perceived as complaining and not at all helpful.

Offering the occasional piece of advice or feedback is not always bad, but if you are consistently doing it, you might want to question if it is well received or not.

Count how many times a day you offer helpful feedback. If you are offering this help at least once per day, let me give you some unsolicited (and potentially unappreciated) feedback; STOP!