Confront Complainers Gently

by Adapt Training and Development

The concept of co-regulation can be applied to how we can “catch” each other’s calm as well as each other’s distress. Similarly, when someone around us has a propensity to complain, we may experience either discomfort or an increased awareness of our own complaints. Complaining can be contagious and it can chip away at the positivity of folks who generally feel pretty good about things.

Before anyone gets up in arms thinking I am saying that complaining is never valid – nope, I’m not saying that. Many times complaints are extremely valid and highlight things that aren’t working well and should change. Your supervisor, for example, may not be aware of problems until or unless someone complains! Here, I’m talking more about the proverbial “negative Nellies” who are profoundly in the “glass half empty” camp. Many of us have probably been in a situation where we felt cornered by someone’s venting—and this isn’t good for anyone.

So what to do if you find yourself held hostage by a complainer? Here are a few ideas:

  • Face yourself honestly: are doing anything to encourage the complaining and venting or suggests that you are a receptive audience?
  • Openly disagree if you do disagree (don’t provide an “echo chamber” for their complaints): It may not change the person’s perspective, but it will convey that if they want validation, you’re not the person they will get it from. You can say “I don’t really see it that way” or “I have a different perspective” without getting in the weeds of the issue.
  • Suggest who they might bring their concerns to if they want things to change. “If you don’t like ___, I would recommend bringing it up with ___.”
  • Set boundaries – if you find yourself trapped, let the person know your time to listen is not limitless. “I’ve got a few more minutes to talk, then I need to get back to my work.”
  • If you have heard it dozens of times before and the person doesn’t seem to be motivated toward change—say so. “___, I feel like we’ve had this conversation before, and I think you already know my opinion.” Or “___ you seem a little stuck on this and I don’t really feel that I have any more to offer on this topic.” Awkward, but usually effective. If you want to get fancy with it – or soften it a little, you could validate the relationship first. “___,  I really like working with you, but I don’t think I have more to say on this topic.”

Check out this article from the Harvard Business Review for some related tips: Managing a Chronic Complainer.

What if you suspect that YOU are the complainer? Here are some things that you might ask yourself:

  • What am I actually unhappy about?
  • What am I hoping for?
  • Am I venting or complaining to people who can effect change?
  • What have I tried other than venting or complaining? In other words, what action steps have I taken?
  • Am I getting other needs met by complaining (e.g., attention, sympathy), and is there a better way to do this?

Be well.