Flipping Complaints to Commitments (Jedi Leadership Tricks)

As you spend more time watching how you interact with others, you may notice something about your conversations.

Specifically, that you bitch and moan about things that bother you. Maybe not every minute, but probably a few times a day.

What’s the problem with bitching and moaning? After all, everybody does it.

flip pancakes

Three things:

  1. You feel lousy. Maybe not at first, but within a few minutes, kind of like eating french fries with ice cream—something I loved doing after high school soccer games at Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
  2. People see you differently. It’s the weirdest thing: even though we all complain, when we hear somebody else doing it, we quickly make a judgment about them. You can lose credibility that you worked so hard to build up.
  3. It dampens the mood of your team. When people hear you making negative comments, it affects their emotional state. This is because, as brain science teaches us, our nervous systems are intertwined. Your periodic complaints about, say, how IT or HR let you down, can shift others into moods of resignation, resentment, or fear.

The good news is that you can turn this around. Literally flip something negative into something positive.

Once you learn how, it’s pretty easy to do. And you’ll find the result to be far better than the alternatives. Usually we either take pride in our complaints (the great tradition of “venting”) or stuff them away. As you know, there is no “away.” Just like frozen pipes or overheated glass, our complaints can burst or shatter.

That’s what makes flipping complaints so effective. We look inside them for evidence of what matters most to us. All that negative energy neither spreads nor goes underground. Instead, we transform it into something positive.

Kudos to Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey for this trick. As they say, behind every complaint is something you are committed to. Watch the complaint closely, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what you care about.

So here’s how you do it:

  1. Pay attention to what you’re complaining about. A coworker? Your boss? A direct report who seems out to get you? How dreadfully slowly things change in your organization—or how painfully fast? Whatever it is, write it down.
  1. Take a few deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. From this relaxed place, imagine yourself climbing up to the balcony of a theater and looking down at the stage, where someone who looks like you is complaining.
  1. Ask yourself what does this person care about so much that its absence from her experience is causing her to complain? What is she committed to? Trusting relationships with coworkers? Clear expectations with her boss? Thoughtful change? Whatever it is, write it down—and make it yours. Make sure you start the sentence with, “I am committed to_____.” The words matter because they immediately position you not as a victim who complains but as a powerful person who has commitments.
  1. Say it out loud to a trusted colleague or friend at the next opportunity. This shouldn’t take long, because whatever you care about is right there, smack in the center of your work. You shouldn’t have to look hard!
  1. Pay attention to what that feels like to you and how it impacts the other person. Imagine what it would be like to build your conversations around this commitment in the future. What power would this give you?

Jedis don’t procrastinate, so I know you won’t wait until tomorrow. You’ll do this today, and probably in the next thirty minutes. Remember, the complaint doesn’t have to be something you verbalize. It can be a thought in your head.

You won’t believe how big a difference this makes until you give it a try. So start tracking what bothers you, flip it into a commitment, and enjoy the positive momentum that results.

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Episode 6: James Flaherty on How People Change and Where Excellence Lives

James Flaherty taught me how to coach, created the organization where I met my wife, and challenged me to grow myself as a person.

That’s quite an influence for one person, don’t you think?

In Episode 6 of The Amiel Show, I had the privilege to talk with James about some big stuff I’ve learned from him. We discussed:

  • 3:00 So much of our experience is an interpretation versus a fact “out there”
  • 8:20 Why self-observation is as important as 360 feedback
  • 13:30 Truly changing involves our bodies, social worlds, and language
  • 24:00 Excellence is evoked in relationship rather than something we create alone
  • 30:30 Aristotle’s notion of excellence, including all parts of ourselves
  • 35:45 What’s up with emotions in our culture
  • 43:00 Executive presence happens in the body
  • 51:50 What James is deliberately practicing to develop himself

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“It’s not necessary for me to cut off my own virtue, my own goodness, in order to be excellent.” —James Flaherty    Tweet this quote

Explore Additional Resources

New Ventures West—coaching training and leadership development

Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others by James Flaherty

The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin


Trauma Release Exercises (TRE)

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Episode 5: Vicki Halsey on “Woo ‘n’ Do” Learning, Email Quality, and Legendary Service [The Amiel Show]

In Episode 5 of The Amiel Show, I speak with Vicki Halsey. Vicki has long been one of the key players in The Ken Blanchard Companies and currently serves at VP of Applied Learning. Below is a photo of her with Ken Blanchard, with whom she coauthored the book Legendary Service. In this high-energy conversation, Vicki and I discuss:

  • How to improve the way managers learn by shifting from “Sit ‘n’ Get” to “Woo ‘n’ Do”
  • How to manage email before it manages you by sending fewer emails and increasing the quality of the ones that we do send
  • The difference between legendary service and the ordinary service most of us experience most of the time

Vicki Halsey

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Episode 4: Bill Torbert on power, framing, and action [The Amiel Show]

If I were to create a Leadership Development Hall of Fame, Bill Torbert would be in it. It was therefore an honor to interview him about ideas that have influenced how I live, learn, and coach.

In Episode 4 of The Amiel Show, I speak with Bill Torbert, who for decades has been a pioneer in helping managers improve their results by practicing a powerful approach that he calls “action inquiry.” We discuss:

  • How to make the next meeting better than the previous one by paying attention to four “territories of experience”
  • What it’s important to start staff meetings by developing a shared frame of what’s at stake
  • How conversations can go astray because of “dueling advocacy” or “naked inquiry”
  • An unsuccessful attempt to trim my son’s fingernails
  • The different forms of power we gain access to as we develop as adults—and how each can be valuable yet limits us when used in every situation
  • Why some managers get threatened by their direct reports
  • What we can learn about “transforming power” from former Czech President, Vaclav Havel


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Episode 3: Jennifer Garvey Berger on Leadership and Adult Development [The Amiel Show]

In the 21 years since I started developing leaders, I’ve come across a handful of truly game-changing ideas. One of these is adult development. It’s the notion that after our bodies reach maturity, our minds can develop through multiple stages. Each stage gives us the capacity to handle greater complexity, yet also involves a loss of something we hold dear—namely, the way of seeing the world that up until now felt like “me.”

In Episode 3 of The Amiel Show, I speak with Jennifer Garvey Berger, one of the foremost educators about adult development in leadership and organizations. We discuss:

  • The many ways we expect leaders to be both superhuman and supremely human
  • How awesome it is to have new capacities to look forward to as we get older
  • How learning about adult development makes us more compassionate and less judgmental toward others
  • The massive achievement of the Socialized Mind, when you first move beyond vast loneliness and self-centeredness and feel connected to others
  • How the Socialized Mind leaves you unprepared for many leadership situations
  • How much of emotional intelligence requires the Self-Authored Mind
  • The Self-Authored Mind, when you develop the code of your own life and realize that, no, people don’t “piss you off,” because you make your own emotions
  • How it can take decades for people to develop the Self-Authored Mind
  • The value of having a companion to help you deal with development’s uncertain gains and painful losses
  • The Self-Transforming Mind, when complexity and ambiguity become our natural playgrounds


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Episode 2: Michael Dolan on Relaxed Productivity and Removing “Stuff” from Your Psyche [The Amiel Show]

In episode 2 of The Amiel Show, Michael Dolan of Truly Productive Leadership and I speak about:

  • How Michael learned the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach
  • The biggest barriers he sees to relaxed productivity
  • The importance of managing agreements with yourself
  • Why it is important to collect all of the stuff swimming around in your psyche and place it in a trusted system, a process that he compares to popping popcorn
  • The tremendous relief people experience after doing this
  • The value of understanding yourself better as a person so that, in addition to being productive, you also feel a deep sense of meaning


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