We’ve all encountered them at some point – and maybe, at times, we’ve even been one of them: that person at work who corners you in the hallway only to protest a new policy, wail about the inadequacies of a co-worker, grumble about pay or whine about the lack of lumbar support in their office chair.
Most of the time, the easiest way to deal with these encounters is to simply tolerate the grumbles and complaints. But at some point, the objections, peevishness and continual negativity become too much to handle; they begin to detract from your work day, impact your mood and leave you feeling drained at the end of the work day.
According Robert Sapolsky, an author and professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, exposure to negativity can disrupt learning, memory, attention and judgment (The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2012).
5 Ways to Respond to the Complainer
- Validate and Suggest Change. People are better able to hear suggestions for change when they feel you understand where they’re coming from. Remember, it’s not necessary to agree with their point of view to convey that you understand their point of view. So, try first to validate. You might say something like, “You know, I’m frustrated too.” Then add a suggestion for change, “but the more I think about it, the more upset I get. Let’s focus on something else.” If you’re not frustrated, you might try validating with “I can tell this is really bugging you,” and then follow up with, “I can’t help you solve the problem. Why don’t you try talking to HR” (or a supervisor or whoever might be appropriate).
- Tell them you’re not going to listen. This direct approach may sound difficult. How do you tell someone you’re not going to pay attention to a noxious behavior without creating more friction at work? You might say, “I’ve heard you go around and around on this and my being a sounding board for you isn’t helping. It’s not doing either of us any good.” In meetings, you might allot a specific amount of time to air complaints and then make the rest of the meeting off limits to complaining that doesn’t involve constructive problem solving (The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2012).
- Don’t respond at all. When a previously learned behavior (in this case, complaining) is in some way reinforced (for example, by people paying attention) then it becomes more frequent. You can reduce behavior by not responding in a reinforcing manner. In the case of complaining, you might just leave the situation; nod, or say something like,“hmmm” and walk away. Or you might pull out your phone, tap out a message and walk off, as if busy with whatever was on your phone. One important note: often when we begin to ignore what we previously responded to, you get a behavior burst, that is a brief increase in the behavior. If you respond to the person during their behavior burst, you’ve likely increase the behavior.
- Respond to behaviors inconsistent with complaining. Seek out non-complaining times and respond to that. The person can’t complain 100% of the time. Start with any small instance of non-complaint and fully engage during those times.
- Tolerate it. Let’s face it, some people aren’t going to change and can’t be avoided. If this is the case, find some strategies to tolerate their negativity without letting it bring you down. While you speak with them, you might try visualizing a force field that protects you from their negative energy, or think about how lucky you are not to have so many problems, quietly engage in deep breathing or gently focus on relaxing your muscles.
Complaining, whining and negativity can impact job performance; it can decrease your motivation, leave you irritable and make problems feel insurmountable. If you can change your work environment into one that’s more positive, you’ll feel less drained. If you can’t change it, begin developing strategies to help you manage it.