There are a couple of people in my life who like to complain – a lot. I won’t name names but, suffice it to say, they are people whom I care about and I want to be there for them. The constant complaining is a problem though. It’s so bad at times that I can put my phone down and when I come back, they’re still complaining. Usually it’s about something pretty unimportant like someone cutting them off in traffic or someone at work who did something annoying. I listen half-heartedly and know that I really need to shift this dynamic with my family member.

Family members are one thing but when you work with or manage a complainer, it can be incredibly frustrating. You might feel as if nothing is right or good in their eyes. You might feel that too much time is wasted listening to complaints. You might do your best to avoid the person. You might be thinking about how to move this person off of your team. None of that addresses the issue though, so what can you do?

  • Distinguish between venting and complaining – Ask, “Do you want my help with what you’re describing or do you just need to vent?” All of us at times just want to vent about a frustrating situation. We need an ear to air our frustrations. In small and infrequent doses, venting is fine – and can be a healthy way to process difficult events. It can also help someone know that they are not alone in feeling the way they do. Help the person to understand the difference between the two.
  • Help them manage emotions and reactions – Ask, “You seem frustrated. What caused you to react this way?” This can pull the person out of their story and focus them on what is going on for them internally. Often it can lead them to see that their reaction may have been stronger than it needed to be. Share how their emotions and reactions impact you.
  • Hold them accountable – Years ago I worked with a manager who made it clear to us that complaints had to be accompanied by a solution. You knew that he would not tolerate whining and complaining about something or someone unless you could also move toward what to do about it. Another effective approach he used was to bring two people in disagreement together to hear both sides of the story and find a way forward.
  • Model the right behavior – If you don’t want people complaining to you, then make sure you limit your complaining. Don’t allow your team or work group to get caught in complaining or venting sessions. Cut it off and move on. I have seen some teams that have a set period of minutes to vent in a meeting. When that time is up, the group stops expressing their frustrations and annoyance and gets back to the business at hand.
  • Create a positive environment – When you have a supportive, collaborative, and positive culture, there’s less room for unproductive behaviors like incessant complaining. Acknowledge and reward positive approaches and outcomes. Provide spaces for open dialogue and connection. Encourage ongoing feedback and learning.
  • Dig deeper to understand – There are times when complaints hold deeper meaning or reveal hard truths about a situation or team. While constant complaining should not be encouraged or tolerated, listen carefully when you do hear the occasional complaint. Is there constructive feedback for you or someone else in the complaint? Is the complaint exposing a hard or uncomfortable truth about your organization? How likely is it that this complaint is actually one that is shared by others but just not spoken? Not all complaining is bad. Make sure you are not ignoring bigger issues when complaints come your way.

We all have a need to complain every once in a while. Sometimes we just need to get something off of our chest or freely express how messed up we think a situation is. Dealing with a constant complainer is a much bigger issue that, and, left unchecked, can create a toxic environment at work. Knowing how to deal with that can make your life and those of others around you much better.

How do you handle the complainers in your life?
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