Before we go further here, I'd like be sure we understand each other on something.  I fully realize that this section could easily seem condescending, patronizing, or even offensive if taken out of context.  But PLEASE believe me when I tell you that such is NOT intended.  No matter how obvious or kindergarten-ish these suggestions may seem, the fact is that they are in here for one reason -- namely that I have personally seen or heard each one of them occur here in Cordova.  In other words, I'm not making this stuff up, or trying to elaborate on some kind of vague point.  Every suggestion -- supporting good behavior or warning against bad behavior -- is in here as a result of me witnessing that specific behavior for myself.  And too, I am not bringing these issues up to point fingers or make anyone feel bad.  The ONLY reason I raise these issues about complaining is because I have personally witnessed how destructive "bad behavior" can be to a process of public dialogue.  A person can have a great idea that would revolutionize life in Cordova - BUT, if they are a jerk in presenting that idea, then they ruin it for everyone, including themselves.  Not only does their idea not get used, but the rest of the town sees them for what they are -- and we all know that no one in the right mind likes to be seen as a jerk, yes?

So, I hope that provides some constructive context for why this section takes the tone that it does, and that no one will be unduly offended by the content.

Concerns, Complaints, Criticisms

OK-- here's the big tamale'.

Few things get as much attention on talk shows as complaints.  No one likes to hear them, and yet it seems that's about the only context that will compel someone to participate.

People talk about how much they hate listening to complaints, and yet the shows with the most complaining usually get the best ratings.

There are dozens of wonderful things to talk about every day in our community, and yet the only things that seem to really drive people to the phones in droves are the massive negatives -- labor problems, taxes, health care, even church disputes!

And the "Mother of all Ironies" I find in this complaint situation is the times I hear people say that they turned off Town Meeting on a given day because there was too much complaining.  But when I turn it around and ask "Well why didn't you call in with something more positive?", I get a bunch of "Duhhh, uhhh, well, duhhh, I don't... ummmm."  Oh... so it's fine to shut out the discussion, but not worth your time to improve it -- is that your point?

If I could manage to identify what it is about human nature that makes the least liked elements of society the very same issues that draw the most attention, I'd probably get a Nobel Prize.  The fact that people will fall all over themselves to sound off about party politics, but would sooner have a hole drilled in their head than share the details of something wonderful in the town, is completely beyond me.

But I digress...

As much as we may all think we hate complaining, that fact is that it's a very important part of the public process.  While it's certainly sad that complaining seems to be so much more popular than complimenting, we mustn't ignore the necessity of the expression of contrary points of view.  As with other areas, if everyone remains silent when a bad idea is put forth, then bad ideas will rule the day.  It's only through trial in the fires of public debate that the refined will of the people is advanced.

Being in radio most of my life, I have discovered a very critical truth: There's complaining, and then there's complaining.  What I mean by that is that there's basically 2 ways to complain -- the helpful way, and the rotten way.  The reason people hate complaining so much is because too many "complainers" use the rotten way.  And the reason so many are afraid to say anything that could be construed as complaining is due do a deathly fear of being perceived as a rotten complainer.

What I hope to share in this section are some perspectives on how to complain, criticize, and express concern in a way that is helpful and non-corrosive -- because I believe that if we can remove the fear that potentially helpful concern-raisers have about coming off like whiners, then those good folks will feel more empowered to participate.

Key errors that turn a constructive complaint into a rotten one:
    -- getting off topic
        -- such as dredging up "side issues" from the past
        -- such as dragging in personality conflicts
    -- offering no suggestion that there might be 2 sides to the story (i.e. my way is the only way)
    -- perhaps acknowledging 2 sides, but offering no interest in the "other" side (i.e. no interest in discussion or learning)
    -- passing judgment when one should be asking questions
    -- assassinating someone's overall character because of a particular decision or behavior
    -- saying something/someone is wrong, but then offering no better ideas.  It's really easy to bash an idea you don't like. Any idiot can do that.  But what's rare, and much more valuable, is a person who raises concerns about an issue and then offers an alternative.  THAT'S constructive.  The other is just whining.  Now, you may have concerns about something, and genuinely not have a better solution even thought you've racked your brain.  That's FINE.  But have the good manners to ADMIT you don't have a better idea when you present your concern (see example below).

SO... let's play around with this a little.

First, here's how NOT to do it:

"Yeah, I think it's just ridiculous that council is raising property taxes again.  I was born and raised in Cordova, and 20 years ago, we only had 2 people at city hall.  Why the hell do they need 20 over there now?  This is just another lame attempt by council to control how we use our money.  They think we're all stupid.  They need to wake up and smell the coffee."

And now the analysis  :-)

(1) First, the overall tone is adversarial and negative -- lots of words like "ridiculous", "lame", or "stupid".  Usually a lot of talk like this just betrays a lack of intelligence or preparation on the part of the speaker.  It conveys inflexibility and an "I've got it all figured out" mentality without offering any constructive invitation for dialogue.

(2) "I was born and raised in Cordova" -- this is a pet peeve of mine.  Being born and raised here DOES make one a special member of the town, but is does NOT give someone a right to be mean or a jerk.  Sure, you have the benefit of experience and can bring a wealth of information to a discussion from a unique perspective IF dialogue is your goal.  But to simply use that as the preamble to a string of mean comments reduces the honor of being born and raised here to a simple bullying tactic -- as if what YOU want is more important simply because of your history, regardless of whether it makes any sense.  Don't use that phrase to beat someone over the head -- it makes you sound foolish, not honorable.

(3) "We only had 2 people at city hall back in the old days" -- arguments like that, without any supporting facts, are tired and overused.  The fact is (excuse the cliché) that the only thing that's unchanging in the Universe is change.  There may be very good reasons for keeping something the same, but proposing to keep something the same, or revert to the past, simply because "that's the way it's always been" has never (in my experience) led to any productive outcome.  If you're going to suggest such an approach, augment it with specifics -- don't just blurt that out and make yourself sound like a curmudgeon.

(4) "This is just another lame attempt by council... they think we're all stupid..." -- here again, grandiose, rhetorical statements like this without any specifics are just argumentative and useless.  Phrases like that are tired and terribly overused.  Nothing will make people tune you out or dismiss you faster than statements like these.  Plus, they convey no suggestion that there may be more than one side to the story -- the speaker has it all figured out and is not interested in anything other than his/her own opinion.  If I had a dime for everyone I've seen go down in flames using such an approach, I'd own my own jet.

(5) THE BIG WHAMMY -- There are NO suggestions or better ideas here.  In my experience, this is the single most crucial element that differentiates between constructive (good) and rotten (useless) complaints.  If you are going to insist that a particular course of action is wrong, then PROPOSE SOMETHING BETTER.  Any chump can disembowel another person's ideas, but the folks that make a real difference are those that point out the flaws in bad ideas and then (with equal vigor) present a better way to accomplish the goal.  Or at the very least, they admit that the problem is a hard one and that they don't necessarily have any great answers either; BUT, they still have concerns about the plan of action being proposed.  You don't have to be able to solve a problem in order to have the right and responsibility to express concern about a particular approach.  Maybe the best you can do is throw out some suggestions, or simply confess that it's a tough problem as you point out the flaws in the current solution.  But if all you do is spew a bunch of mean bile and attack an idea, and then walk away with no offer to be a part of a solution, then you betray either ignorance or a high degree of self-centeredness.

So, how can we do this better?

Here's the wrong way again:

"Yeah, I think it's just ridiculous that council is raising property taxes again.  I was born and raised in Cordova, and 20 years ago, we only had 2 people at city hall.  Why the hell do they need 20 over there now?  This is just another lame attempt by council to control how we use our money.  They think we're all stupid.  They need to wake up and smell the coffee."

And now an alternative:

"Hi -- I just wanted to express concern about the idea to raise the property taxes again.  I know that council has a really tough challenge with the budget.  I've listened to the meetings and know about the higher insurance and increased fuel costs, and I don't envy them the decisions they have to make.  But my concern is that property tax only targets year round residents.  I'd like to see something more comprehensive like maybe a little more sales tax, or some visitor taxes.  I could also see cutting back the budget in (such and such an area), because I think we could do without that, at least for a while.  Anyway, I know the city is working hard on this and I appreciate that, but I just wanted them to know that I believe there are other ways to go about it besides property tax again, because I'm worried about us being able to afford our homes if it goes up much more.  Thanks!"

Now I know people will have varying opinions on this.  Some would see the second approach as wimpy or soft, while others would agree with me and see the first approach as sullen and unproductive.  The fact is, this is America and we can express ourselves pretty much any way we like -- but the fact remains that some ways are simply more effective than others (no matter how much some would seek to deny that fact).  I've attended virtually every council meeting for the last decade, seen a large number of other public meetings, and I serve on local and state boards -- and I can tell you with certainty that the latter (productive) approach always gets more done, whether it's at a public meeting, or on the Town Meeting talk show.

So, things to remember in preparing your concerns, complaints, criticisms:

-- Stay on topic.
-- Be aware that there may be more sides to the story than yours, and be wise enough to acknowledge that fact.
-- Don't beat up on personalities -- focus on the issue.
-- PRESENT ALTERNATIVES (or at least admit it when you don't have any better ideas).

And one last thing.... if you complain about a situation, take the time to follow the issue and be certain to offer a compliment if you see positive action get taken.  Let's keep things in balance.  If you speak out against property taxes, and council later follows your advice and raises revenue some other way or cuts spending, then make a mental note to call in again later and compliment them.  If you complain about potholes, then make a mental note to call in and praise the crews after they finally get fixed.  And so on and so on...

These presentations can vary so widely that it's early impossible to provide any kind of fill in the blank helper form.  If you'd like a skeleton form, look through some of the other sections for more specific ideas.

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