How do you solve an annoying problem like the chronic complainer at work? Like the background radio in the security guys’ office, chronic complainers are forever on, jabbering on about this, that and the in-between. Like a virus, they will always find a target. They’re utterly exhausting, a major drain on energy levels. Plus, there is evidence that if you have a negative person in your surroundings for over a year, you can start shifting towards a negative way of thinking yourself, without even realizing it. Yikes.
Trying to work productively and peacefully when you have a chronic complainer in your midst is nigh on impossible. These guys are a tormented sea of dissatisfaction and discontent; even Moses couldn’t part their Red Sea.
Below are a clutch of survival tips to help you survive life in the office with a chronic complainer, none of which require a miracle or a prescription for medication.
1. Understand Their Mindset
Prodigious complainers have a chronic lack of self-awareness. They have no idea of the impact their complaining has on those around them. They see themselves as the victims of a dysfunctional, unfair world. The world is mad, bad and dangerous; they are merely responding to what they perceive. Whereas the optimist will observe a glass as being half full and the pessimist will observe the same glass as being half empty, the chronic complainer will observe that the glass isn’t perfectly cylindrical, the water is luke-warm instead of warm or that the glass is not as clean as it should be. This gives him cause for concern about a) the effectiveness of the £999 dishwasher which should promptly be returned, b) the possibility of a viral outbreak in the office and c) the fact that there isn’t even an accredited Health and Safety department in the company.
Chronic complainers believe that they are life’s true realists. They’re crying out inside: “What I have to say is really matters! Someone hear me out!” Yet they seldom feel heard, which is why they become ‘chronic complainers’: people hardly ever listen to them.
Understanding the chronic complainer’s mindset will help you reflect on how you interact with them. If you know that they typically feel unheard, you can consider whether your actions contribute to their sentiment. Are you responding to them in ways that cause them to feel unheard? Do you, when you talk to them, also have an eye on the clock overhead? Do you rush to offering them solutions? Do you nod your head too quickly in response to their laments? All of these actions probably contribute to their chronic complaining. If they feel as though they have been heard, more often than not, they will refrain from further complaining.
2. Accept Them as Fellow Human Beings
The Italian expression, “il mondo è bello perché è vario”, can be translated as “the world is beautiful because of the variety”. And so it is that chronic complainers, as frustrating as they might be, are part of that variety; therefore, we must accept them as such, rather than seek to reform them. After all, which of us is perfect? Any attempt to change them will probably fail – people cannot change people.
3. Get Their Complaints Down on Paper
When faced with a cavalcade of complaints, pen and paper should be your weapon of choice in order to ‘focus’ complaints into more concise points. The aim here is to make direct complainers, summarise their key points. If you employ phrases such as “what else?” during your discussions, the chronic complainer will be motivated to move on to the next point on their complaints list. Once they’ve got their complaints off their chest, repeat the points they’ve raised, then let them know that you will need time to address the points but will get back to them no later than a particular date. This way, complainers will be satisfied that a) their grievances will be afforded some thought and, b) they and their complaints will be responded to.
4. Link Problems and Solutions
Chronic complainers will not ‘go away’ (your ultimate objective) until they feel that they have achieved a resolution to their problems. You can ‘speed things up’ by encouraging them to articulate satisfaction even before a solution to their problem has been secured. Here’s an example of how to do this, by linking problems and solutions:
“So if the Zanussi dishwasher was replaced with your preferred Bosch one, would that solve the problem of dirty glasses and would that then prevent a virus outbreak in the department?”
In this step, it’s important to ask questions that elicit an answer from the complainer. Asking questions that seek a pre-commitment of satisfaction is a more intelligent and effective approach than asking a question phrased or interpreted as, “If this is sorted out will you go away?” With the latter approach, complainers won’t go away; they’ll simply dig their heels in and find further reasons to complain.
5. Coach Them Into Positive Thinking
A simple technique but an effective one is this: ask the complainer to rate their level of motivation in gaining a resolution to their current issue on a scale of 1 -10, with 10 representing the strongest motivation. If they respond with a high-ish figure, for example, an 8, ask what it would take to move them up to a 10. Then, together, brainstorm specific ways in which the gap can be bridged, using lots of ‘open’ prompts such as “how”, “how else” or “what else”. If, on the other hand, they offer a low score, for example, a 3, ask them to explain why they didn’t go for an even lower score, for example, a 1 or a 2. This will identify the complainer’s true motivation. Once you’ve got them thinking more constructively, you’re ready for the next strategy.
6. Invite Them to be Part of the Solution
Assuming your complainer is in a positive frame of mind, and assuming you’ve both identified a possible solution, break the solution down into actionable steps. Gain your complainer’s agreement to perform the steps themselves and agree on a date to discuss progress. If, on the other hand, no solution has been identified, gain their acceptance to track and document the impact of the problem over a month or so. This has the double blessing of keeping you away from them for a reasonable amount of time and, if it’s a genuine problem, having someone with a vested interest in the problem’s resolution both researching and monitoring it. Your complainer might also find that the problem isn’t as bad as they had originally assumed.
7. Interrupt Yourself
If all else fails, you can always interrupt yourself. As discussed in the first point, looking at the clock whilst they are talking to you is a no-no. But whilst you are talking, you could look at your watch and peremptorily excuse yourself with a “Gotta go, but I hope I’ve helped a bit.” It’s not the best strategy, but at least it gets you out of there, and the use of the past tense in ‘helped’, draws a line under things.
There may be environments that are simply not compatible with chronic complainers. For example, if you run a very small business and have a chronic complainer in your team, their negativity could ultimately destroy your business. You may feel that you have neither the time nor the money to stage any of their dramatics. But if you try the above points, there may be a slight improvement, who knows?
Have you ever had a chronic complainer in your team at work? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below.