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Productivity 101: Coaching Complainers

Nobody like a complainer, until now.

Picture of a woman in an office, sitting down with a paper bag on her head. A frowny face is drawn on the bag.
Are you a perpetual complainer?

Coaching the Complainers

As life coaches, encountering complaints is part of our daily routine. Clients often express dissatisfaction—whether it's related to their careers, social lives, or personal achievements—and their expressions can range from thoughtful reflections and anxious puzzlement to outright venting sessions. However, it’s important to recognize that complaining is not just an inevitable aspect of coaching; it’s also invaluable for facilitating meaningful progress.

Think of it this way: How can we, as coaches, address and partner with the client to rectify issues if clients do not voice their concerns? Therefore, we welcome their complaints with an open mind!

In this edition of our productivity series livestream, we will dive deep into the nature of complaints, exploring their underlying purpose and providing strategies for coaches to turn complaints into opportunities for positive change. Join CLCI Live as complaining experts Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), and Jen Long (ACC) as they complain… productively!

Breaking Down Complaining

While complaints are often perceived as negative and troublesome, they actually serve as important signals and offer opportunities for action. Complaining allows us to release internal stress and pressure, giving voice to our concerns. Conversely, when we suppress negative feelings and emotions, we let our grievances consume mental space without resolution.

Complaining is a broad word that generally has three categories: venting, problem-solving, and ruminating.

  • Venting is about releasing pent-up tension and emotion, ideally in a supportive environment. During a coaching session, a coach may allow time for venting to provide empathy and understanding. However, it's crucial to recognize that venting alone does not constitute the entirety of coaching.

  • Problem-solving is goal-oriented and collaborative. It involves seeking advice and sharing solutions with peers, which can strengthen bonds and foster community. In coaching, this is where the focus intensifies on resolving the issues at hand, making it the bread and butter of a coaching session.

  • Ruminating, or dwelling, is when complaining can become dangerous—it involves a self-fulfilling pattern of negative thought patterns that contains no intention of growth. Typically, rumination has no coach involvement and only serves the client by self-justifying their own suffering. By understanding the types of complaints we make and uncovering the purpose behind them, we can understand our needs surrounding the complaint and better fulfill them.

Nurturing Productive Venting

Venting. It’s a sweet release of something that’s bugging you without the intent of a resolution. It sounds unproductive, yet doing so does provide an emotional benefit.

Much like a coaching session, a vent session is best started by defining the goal of the session. Telling the person you’re venting to: “I need to vent about something” sets clear expectations for the listener about your needs and goals without leaving room for misinterpretation. When we vent, we don’t want solutions or advice. We just want to complain—productively—so that we can release the negative emotions surrounding a topic that is heavy on our minds.

As venting is therapeutic, when our clients need to vent, we can provide the coaching space for them to release emotions and frustrations. If we don’t provide the space for our client to vent, they might not be able to use the time productively because the need to vent is weighing on their mind, distracting from any other progress. When you recognize that a client is in need of venting space, it’s okay to allow them to take that time.

While venting is a temporary space of releasing emotions, it is essential to transition from that space into the coaching session, where the coach can further explore the goals related to the vent session or deeper emotions at work. By actively listening and empathizing, we give space for clients' feelings while gently guiding them towards exploring actionable steps for change.

The Complaint Heavy Client

While venting can be cathartic and helpful for clients, it’s not helpful when venting is the only thing a client wants to do, and it's not what you are being paid as a coach to do. This is why it is so important to set boundaries around the coaching session. Remind your client of their goals and the original intent for the session, and discuss how to adjust the schedule to move forward with this needed time. This is especially important for when clients fall back on venting in multiple coaching sessions. When the coaching relationship has become inundated with vent sessions, be mindful that the client may instead be ruminating, and reestablish the coaching contract set at the beginning of the sessions.

Another type of heavy complaining is rumination. Rumination is “repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences” (American Psychiatric Association). It becomes a cycle of negative self talk that can easily push clients into anxiety and depression. If a client is veering into this area, they may need a frank conversation about the nature of coaching and the service you provide. Regarding mental health or even traumatic cases, a referral to professional mental health assistance may be the optimal choice.

Harnessing the Power of Complaints

Complaints offer a unique chance for coaches to be direct and make observations about their clients' patterns.

This potentially challenging feedback relies on the client feeling safe in the coaching space and having a reliable rapport with their coach. Through compassionate communication, we can question into the complaint and guide clients to self-reflection, encouraging them to recognize their own tendencies towards complaining and decide what they want to do about it. By reframing complaints as opportunities for growth, we can help clients realize the limitations of their complaints and open up new possibilities for change.

This encouraging of clients to explore the purpose behind their complaints and identify areas within their control can initiate a shift in their mindset. By asking thought-provoking questions, we can help clients consider alternative perspectives, further developing their distress and enabling them to view situations from a broader lens. Complaints then become catalysts for uncovering hidden opportunities and reclaiming personal power.

A challenge to Coaches: No More Complaining about Complaining

Complaints are powerful tools for growth when approached with intention and insight. Whether it’s relieving an emotional need or illustrating an opportunity for improvement, complaining can be done productively.

As life coaches, it is our responsibility to guide clients through their complaints, reframing them as opportunities for transformation. By acknowledging complaints as signals, offering alternative perspectives, and facilitating actionable change, we empower clients to reclaim their power and create meaningful shifts in their lives.


Thank you,

Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), and Jen Long (ACC)!

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I always thought complaining was just negativity, but the breakdown of venting, Buckshot Roulette problem-solving, and ruminating makes sense. Maybe I can learn to use complaining differently to actually get stuff done.


Tap the colorful blocks in Block Blast and match them in vertical and horizontal rows to destroy them from the level.

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