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Why complaints demand a caring response

Leaders deal with complaints almost daily, but SmartBrief's Candace Chellew offers a roadmap to see -- and handle -- them differently.

6 min read



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The email was jarring – but not completely unexpected. 

I was just a few months into my new role as a Senior Editor here at SmartBrief and I had been charged with “freshening up” the SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter. I have been writing the brief for several years when my supervisor, the then-senior editor, left for new adventures. I found the prospect of revamping the newsletter challenging, but also fun. 

Candace Chellew

The most popular feature we added was the “Put it Into Practice” section that gives a quick shot of advice if you only have time to skim the daily email. This reader, though, was unimpressed and gave me a rundown of why they objected to everything in the issue that day. I admit, my ego smarted a bit after reading the email. 

I did not reply right away. I have learned from experience that when the ego gets bruised, it’s best to step away from the situation for a bit instead of reacting from a fresh wound. The email weighed heavy on my mind, though, until I said, out loud: “I am willing to see this differently.” 

I went on about my work and later that evening, it dawned on me how to respond. I went back and reread the email with a fresh perspective and what I saw was not so much a disgruntled reader, but a fully engaged one. The email sender had commented on every single article. They had read it from top to bottom. Granted, they took issue with what they read — but they read it. 

I drafted a response in which I thanked the email author for being such a devoted and engaged reader, and I told them that I genuinely appreciated their feedback and would take it to heart. I decided not to send it right away, and instead let it sit for the night. When I revisited it in the morning, I tweaked a few things, and with a thudding heart, pressed send. 

I didn’t have to wait long. The reply surprised me. Someone who had earlier been a critic was kind and generous in their response. My ability to try to see through the critical words to the heart of what the reader’s real issue was (mainly, feeling like the changes were not for the better) had been received in the spirit with which I had intended. We exchanged a few more pleasant emails, and, to this day, I keep their criticism in mind as I’m building and writing the brief. 

It’s easy to be reactionary in our leadership — to hear criticism or dissent and let our ego lead the way in a defensive response. Good leaders, though, take the time to try to see things differently, to read between the lines, to question their own assumptions and biases and seek to understand the deeper concerns of a critic. Sometimes people use sarcasm or snark to get their point across because they don’t know how to express themselves differently, or they’re reacting from their own ego in the moment and hit send in haste. 

My encounter holds several lessons for leaders: 

  1. Don’t take it personally. A critic may well be trying to hurt us with their words, but as the old playground adage reminds us, words can never truly hurt us unless we take them to heart. As I looked deeper into the ideas my email critic was trying to express, I saw a lot of value in them and really did take them to heart – not as a criticism of myself, but as constructive criticism in story selection and summary writing. They did make some good points amid the sarcasm.
  2. Don’t react in the heat of the moment. Typing up an automatic and equally sarcastic reply would solve nothing. That’s why I waited until I could gain a fresh perspective on it. Then, even after writing a calm, and hopefully constructive reply, I didn’t send it right away. I let it rest overnight.

    Leaders don’t always have the luxury of taking a cooling off period, though. In those circumstances, when you feel your irritation and your own inner sarcastic critic rise, I recommend pausing, taking a deep breath and relaxing both inside and outside before responding. When you do respond, instead of caustic words, use curious words aimed at uncovering the critic’s true intention. Often, they want to be helpful but aren’t sure how. Your questions can help them better frame their message.
  3. Assume positive intent. My ego wanted me to lambast this email author, but because I am a faithful practitioner of meditation, breathwork and mindfulness, I had some tools at my disposal that allowed me to take a step back and see that the critique, as sarcastic as it was, came from a place of true concern for an email newsletter that they obviously enjoyed reading. The tone of the message may have been off-putting, but the love for the Leadership brief was evident if I took the time to look for it.
  4. Validate the positive, ignore the negative. Being willing to see the email differently showed me that my critic had some valid points; I could separate the positive tips from the negative tone. I was careful to validate the good things about the email — mainly that the writer showed so much engagement and care for the brief.
  5. Reward the effort. One of the things that I realized when I committed myself to seeing the situation differently was that the email writer took the time to create an email, write out their thoughts and send it to me. Sure, it was a critical email, but they could have just quietly unsubscribed, and I would have been none the wiser. In my reply, I profusely thanked them for taking the time to contact me. The simple act of sending the email showed their devotion to the brief and their alarm that it was taking a wrong turn. 

When we take the time to see situations differently, it gets us out of our own head and shakes us free from the stories and assumptions we make up about the other person and their motives. 

I am grateful for everyone who sends me feedback on the brief.  I am especially grateful for the critics, though, because they give me a chance to reflect not just on their words, but the underlying care they have for whatever they’re complaining about. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t complain! 

The next time someone comes to you with a complaint, I invite you to be willing to see it differently. You may turn a critic into a fan. 


Candace Chellew is the senior editor of business services for Smartbrief and has spent more than 30 years as a journalist, including six years as a writer, editor and radio news anchor with CNN.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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