What Say You?

Don't write off the power of the "good" letter

Photo by Christin Hume via  Unsplash

Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash


While I cherish the practice of looking on the brighter side, I also marvel at how easy it is for us humans (at least the ones I know), including me, to be compelled to call attention to something when it is not up to snuff. Sometimes calling that attention quite loudly.

Ah, the sweet relief of unburdening by a swiftly-expressed complaint! It can feel soooo good… in the moment that is. You’ve felt it. The moment of release when you say what’s been eating at you, letting it go out into the world where it can be absorbed, validated or shared, and you are no longer alone. But then, I’ve noticed, after getting the bee out of our bonnet, we’re sometimes left with a long-acting stinger that makes it a little harder to enjoy whatever is next. And once we spout the transgressions of This, That or Whomever, it gets hard to stop. Those stingers add up. In a matter of moments, our entire viewpoint is at risk of “going dark.”

Identifying something that needs to change is potentially a positive act. So are we speaking up or mouthing off and how do we tell the difference? Perhaps it boils down to whether our complaint comes with the intention of initiating (and participating in the creation of) that change.

Speak up and something bad stops happening and/or something better starts happening? That would make complaining truly worthwhile!

But is complaining about what is wrong the only way to effectively encourage positive action? What we notice is connected to where we focus. What effect does it have on us to attune our focus to detecting and acknowledging only that which we feel is a problem?

Recently I was reminded of the importance of looking at the whole picture—and that the same intention, applied in the opposite context, can have just as much impact.

I have a friend (we’ll call her Darcy) who, like many of us, has a great deal to say about what is not right about this or that. She is extremely sharp (in more ways than one) and quite often makes a fair point on whatever irks her. Sometimes too, her complaints initiate positive change where none might have been had through kinder-sounding channels, so in her own way, she is making a difference.

Yet, on the occasion when someone does something extraordinary, Darcy does what many of us do not: she writes the opposite of a complaint letter, acknowledging acts of excellence.

Recently, we were chatting on the phone after a long and frustrating round of battles Darcy had with a number of parties over healthcare issues and the way they were being handled (hello, red tape). Usually, she will write a lambasting letter and often jumpstart a turnaround, but this time there was no one to whom she could write and hope for a change. Still pretty steamed up even after she vented, I hung up the phone and felt her exasperation in my own apartment.

Thankfully I had a letter of my own to write. It was a letter to the Operations Manager of a hotel where I recently stayed. The concierge-on-duty had gone to extraordinary lengths to make my stay, and especially my departure, exceptional.  It was a glowing letter, specific, and well deserved in its praise.  It lifted me up to write it.

When I sent the letter to the Operations Manager, I forwarded a copy to Darcy. She was delighted to read it and went on to reply that she had a number of similar letters to write. Yeah! More good news to be delivered!

It might always be more tempting to complain, and maybe that’s okay. Sometimes we might need to vent. When it’s time to speak up though, our true intention is what makes the difference. And as effective as a conscientious complaint might be, if we cultivate an impulse to vent about the “good stuff,” it has its own way of making the world a better place, too.