“Effective complaining is a survival skill that anyone can master, and everyone should.”
– Angie’s List, a home service and review website


Take a moment to search the words “complaining” or “complain.” Your first results will be definitions. Complaining, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “express grief, pain, or discontent, or to make a formal accusation or charge.” The next results will be of the “People Also Ask” variety, including “What do you call a person who complains a lot?” Answer: A misery. Finally, as you continue to scroll you’ll see links to articles like: “I quit complaining for 21 days, and this is what I found out,” and “10 ways to complain less and be happier”.

All the articles emphasize the benefits of complaining less. But, let’s walk this back. While persistent negativity is counter-productive, and no one wants to be perceived as a chronic complainer, there are legitimate reasons to complain and to advocate for yourself. Whether it’s terrible service at a restaurant or excessive bank fees, most us are rightfully frustrated and annoyed when we believe we’ve been mistreated.

How can we get better at advocating for ourselves without tipping into the chronic complaining trap? To find out, we spoke with Amy Fish, a Montreal-based ombudsperson at Concordia University, public speaker, and author of three books on successful complaining. (Her latest is entitled, “I Wanted Fries With That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need” will be out in this fall. Stay tuned for our book contest!) Fish says it’s especially important for women to speak up: “We have to be careful we are not staying quiet so that other people are comfortable.”


Amy’s Advice for Successful Complaining

Think, Then Act

Before you complain, it’s important to be reflective and ask yourself some questions:

  • Is it possible to change this?
  • What do I want as an outcome?
  • Is this my business or concern?

Let’s use the example of being a bank client and feeling like you’re being overcharged for services.

Confirm the Data

Review what you’ve been charged over the last 1, 3 and 5 years. Research the various accounts and rates available at your bank— and at your bank’s closest competitors.

Write it Down

Be prepared. Have the points that you want to discuss written down.


Visit your branch. Speaking to someone face-to-face creates a personal connection and shows that you’re making the effort to resolve the situation. If it’s impossible to speak in-person, prepare for the telephone call with a calm state-of-mind.

Keep Going

If the meeting is not working out, ask to speak to someone else, perhaps a supervisor. If you’re not successful with one form of communication, such as telephone or email, try a different one.

Stay calm

If you’re losing your cool in person, ask to take a moment. Or, if you’re with someone else, hand the conversation over to them. If you’re on the phone, offer to call back and ask to speak with someone else once your emotions are in-check.


“I’m an optimist and I believe most customer service people are trying to be helpful and do a good job,” says Fish. “There are definitely some things you should not do if you want things to go your way.”

Do Not Ramble On

Do not go on about things that are beside the point. Irrelevant details become distracting and make it difficult for the problem solver to know which problem you want to solve.

Do Not Be Rude

Do not shout, be rude or try to intimidate. If you’re trying to resolve a complaint, you need to give the person you are dealing with the opportunity to be helpful. Many call centre staff have some discretion in handling complaints and you will not get what you want by treating them poorly.

When is it time to give up?

Unfortunately, there are places where you cannot win. Some organizations are too large and do not care. You always have the option of taking your business elsewhere.