Survival tips for handling a complainer

We all know someone that likes to come into the office carrying a bag of misery to share with everyone. It is draining for everyone within earshot, in fact, to keep a positive outlook. Everyone who hears a complainer must actively overcome the negativity.

Complaining is contagious and, strangely enough, people do a lot of bonding in this way. “Gee, don’t you hate it when…” or “Great! The boss is going away next week! He’s such a dictator!”

Complaining is more than a little bit of venting, it is highlighting discontent. It can chew into an office culture and bring motivated employees down. If someone is complaining to you regularly, or even just once-off, you may like to consider these survival tips:

1. Listen carefully to the complaint

This piece of advice may go against the grain of every impulse you have, but it can help you long-term if you learn to listen to complainers. Complainers often fail to realise what is causing the real problem. Petty complaints and overreactions to daily occurrences that most people cope with are signs of someone who is quite unsatisfied at their place of work.

Allow reasonable venting to take place. Sometimes people do just need somewhere and someone to go to – an outlet for some pent-up emotion. Be sure to cut it short, however, if it is getting repetitive or focused solely on emotive exaggerations. As an active listener you can ask questions to get closer to the facts and the real issue. You can also summarise and ask for more facts when the complaining becomes repetitive.

If a group is complaining – set a specific time for venting e.g. three minutes at the start of a topic, then ask the group to now move on to how changes will be made to resolve the issues.

2. Acknowledge the complaint

To move someone forward from a complaint they need to know that they’ve been heard. Take a little bit of time to assess the complaint, mull over it and reflect your understanding back to the complainer. If they know they have been understood, they can start to consider problem solving. Note that someone who doesn’t feel listened to will rarely consider your advice in solving the problem.

3. Problem solve

Now that you’ve shown you fully understand the issue at hand, you are now in a credible position to help fix the problem. Ask them how they think it can be resolved? Ideally they should suggest the fix because then they are more committed to follow the action. Suggest that together you brainstorm ways to fix – but get them working on the ideas.

Offer suggestions as to what you think the person could do, or offer advice on different approaches. Getting to the underlying problem is a good option. The problem may be difficult to solve, but a different outlook can make a major difference.

Get the complainer to look closely at what they can control and can’t. Also consider what help you can provide and whether you are willing to do so. Ask them what they think the outcomes of various strategies will be. Ask them to agree on the best way forward and agree on what action they will take.

If they keep going over old ground e.g. complaining again the next day or to the next person, give them feedback on how that comes across.

4. Follow up

Advice can be easy to give, but following up with someone whom you’ve given advice to is a good idea for several reasons. Firstly, if your advice has been taken you get to see if it has been effective and achieved what you thought it would. Secondly, it communicates a message of care to the other person – which might actually reduce their need for complaining in the future. Finally, it reminds the person, if they haven’t acted on your advice, that there is something within their control that can be done to improve the situation.

If the person remains in a negative space, continuing to complain, and you do need to manage this person then give them specific feedback i.e. examples of what they are saying, discuss the impact of their negativity on others in the team, on you and on work performance.

Complaining is not much fun to be around and some skill is needed in making a quick judgement call on whether you want to indulge the problem and look for solutions or if you instead want to close down the conversation early and move on.

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