7 Signs of Chronic Complainers and How to Deal with Them

Quit Problem-Solving

The chronic complainer doesn’t want advice on how to improve his situation. He wants company in his downbeat view of the world. Even if he asks for your input, you are likely to wind up in a spiral where all your suggestions are rejected or lead to new complaints, and both of you will get progressively more annoyed.

Instead, ask in a friendly tone, “Are you looking for advice, or do you need to vent? If venting would be helpful, I can listen for five minutes. After that, I’ll have to do something else or I will wind up in a bad mood—and that won’t be good for either of us.”

Another option is to let the person complain for a minute or two, then say in a friendly tone, “Gosh, what a drag. What are you going to do now?” If the person says he has no idea or asks what you think, say pleasantly, “Hey, my advice only works for me. It’s your life, and I know you can figure this out. Keep me posted on how it goes.”

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2. They seek only validation:

The purpose of complaining is to let feelings out and feel that people listen to you. Basically all they want to see is whether other people are having the same problem. They become extremely happy if they do and then join them it complain more.

Recognize When Its Time to Escalate

If behaviors do not change, it’s time to move from coaching to counseling. ​Coaching is designed to elicit positive change in behaviors by offering guidance, encouragement, and specific action steps.

Counseling offers clear feedback that the behaviors are unacceptable and identifies the implications of failing to change them. When counseling, you can help yourself by:

  • Working with your human resources manager to structure a counseling approach and plan.
  • Ensuring you document all of the prior feedback, coaching and counseling.
  • Presenting the employee with a performance improvement program that clearly defines the outcomes for improving or failing to do so.
  • Ensuring you follow up with the employee at the established times, and measuring their performance only against the agreed-upon parameters.

While chronic complainers seem harmless on the surface, the damage may become irreparable in the long run. You owe it to your team, your firm, and yourself to remove toxic behavior from the workplace.

3. Brave enough? Then give a solution:

If you are really brave and want the other person to switch to positivity (like me), then tell them respectfully what you think.

Tell them that according to you, the matter is trivial and they should not worry about it because at the end of the day, it will all be fine.

Don’t sound as if you do not understand their problem. Tell them, “Hey I get your problem, but here’s my take on it……”

Solicit Input and Offer Timely Feedback

Chronic complainers are crafty at remaining below the surface and out of earshot of their managers. However, engaging with all of your team members allows you to focus on individuals and behaviors that detract from morale and performance.

Use straightforward approaches, conversations, formal surveys and 360-degree reviews to build a body of evidence on the group and individual performance. Once you’ve gained context for a team member’s complaints, it is critical to engage quickly and constructively with the individual.

Focus initially on coaching the person by providing insights about constant complaining, and how it erodes the working environment. Demonstrate how the behavior affects performance and morale.

Indicate how continuous complaining can damage the individual’s career and showcase positive ways to offer critical input on programs, policies, or activities in the workplace. 

If complaining is a misstated desire, then we can help others by discerning which of three needs it stems from

1. Need for control

Oftentimes complaining comes from a natural desire to control. Complaints are passive protests.

2. Need for validation

How often have you experienced complainers wanting you to join in commiserating with them? This is a symptom of needing affirmation and to be understood.

3. Need (but fear of) change

This person may be too afraid to directly address the problem. They attempt to slip hints to you, hoping you will get the idea and instigate a change without facing their fear of direct confrontation.

Knowing these needs leads to two responses.

4. Take action

Encourage them to step out of a victim mindset. In an ideal world, what would they want the situation to look like? If they want to control, have their voice heard, and change their circumstances, then how can they move in that direction as opposed to only talking about it? If they are willing, ask them to make a goal and follow through with you on it.

5. Draw a line

It is okay to be honest that this kind of conversation is not productive for them or for you. In compassion, let them know that talking about it in this way has led you into pessimism too. Depending on the situation, don’t be afraid to encourage them to talk to someone trained to deal with these areas.

How to Deal with Chronic Complainers

Don’t Try to Convince Them

Sometimes, it’s just best for you both if you don’t try to convince them to be more positive. Not only will it save you from a possible argument or heated debate, but it could be more important to them than you realize.

Sometimes chronic complainers are just outright negative people, but some may be genuinely down on their luck people who need some validating.

When a person has nothing but complaints, they might be struggling with their negative mindset. When you hear them complain, try validating it and then moving them on. Sometimes, they just want to be told than someone understands that they’re struggling.

Whether it’s something petty or more serious, meet them with sympathy. Offer to support them in trying to resolve the matter, then move on the conversation so they can’t dwell on it – for your own sake and theirs.

Bring Their Positivity Back

If you come to realize that this chronic complainer is struggling to find light in the darkness, offer them support. Coach them through it. When they speak of something negatively, ask them why they feel so bothered by it.

Listen to their answers then help them unpack their reactions. Offer them genuine ideas that could help them to feel less negative. Suggest positive alternatives and different points of view that might make them see things differently and more rationally.

Dealing with Truly Toxic People

The above techniques work well with garden-variety pessimists. With even stronger toxic negativity, you need to take a different approach.

The toxic person isn’t looking for support but for control. He gains that control by throwing you off balance with upsetting, manipulative or irrational behavior.

You are dealing with a toxic person if he claims that his negative circumstances are your fault…goes beyond complaining to criticize or verbally attack you…twists your words so that you end up confused and frustrated.

Simple strategy: While the toxic person is ranting, look him in the eye neutrally and nonconfrontationally. When he’s done, pause for two to four seconds—a little longer than is customary in conversation. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, say one of the following…

• “Do you want to run that by me again?”

• “Would you say that to me again in a quieter voice?”

• “Do you actually believe what you just said?”

These responses work because they let the toxic person know that you are onto him and won’t be provoked into an argument or outburst.

Rehearse these responses until you can keep your demeanor both pleasant and assertive when you speak. (For more on dealing with toxic people, read 8 Ways to Mange the Impossible Person in Your Life.)

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