How To Deal With Chronic Complainers, From A Therapist

The Damage Done

Research shows that chronic complaining like Peter’s has physiological effects. Through the repetition of bad, sad, mad and powerless feelings, the neurotransmitters in the brain can go through a neural “rewiring,” which reinforces negative thought patterns, making it easier for unhappy thoughts to repeat themselves and leaving little room for the more positive feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and well-being. A continuous cycle of negative thoughts may even cause damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning. Over time, complainers become negativity addicts, attracted to the drama that comes with a complaining attitude.

They are also prone to black-and-white thinking. Compromise isn’t part of the equation. No wonder that chronic complainers like Peter are more likely to see problems instead of solutions, making it very difficult to work with them. Given their negativity, it is hard for them to make decisions and solve problems. Ironically, complaining about things creates more things to complain about.

Chronic complainers also have a damaging effect on those around them. When people are thinking and reacting in negative and pessimistic ways, without realizing it, they transfer these feelings onto others in a process psychologists call “projective identification.” It is as if they use other people as some kind of garbage can for their negativity, making these others feel weighed down and exhausted.

Interestingly, it is very likely that this kind of “transfer” is part of our evolutionary makeup. Some neuroscientists have suggested that human beings possess what are called mirror neurons in their brain that are important for survival. As social beings, our brains unconsciously mimic the moods of the people around us, which can be an advantage when we are faced with danger. It can also serve as a form of social cohesion. This neuronal mirroring, however, has a flip side. People who complain about everything become contagious and, before we realize it, we turn into complainers ourselves.

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……”

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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. 

Avoid These Approaches

When dealing with chronic complainers, there are two common methods you should avoid:

  1. Attempting to win them over by selling them in advance on your ideas
  2. Ignoring the issue and relegating the steady cadence of complaints to background noise

Both of these approaches are less than ideal. If you go out of the way to neutralize the complainer by making a direct appeal for support, you're only playing into their game. In the mind of the complainer, you legitimize them by seeking approval. More often than not, this exacerbates the problem, giving the complainer a chance to brag to others that their support was actively requested and withheld.

Ignoring or rationalizing this employee’s behavior has the effect of minimizing the cumulative damage they create. Unfortunately, in attempting to justify the behavior, you damage your credibility with the broader team. Instead of rationalizing or excusing the behavior, focus on eliminating it.

Try to use a direct approach by coaching first, counseling second, and requiring accountability for behavior each step of the way. If none of this works, it's time to escalate.

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.

1. Listen:

Before responding, you have to listen. It is as simple as that.

Why is this part so crucial? Because you need to figure out whether their problem is legit or not.

If they complain how the coffee machine ditches them every time, it’s not legit.

This will help you to figure out whether it is even worth your time.

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