Optimists see: A glass half full.
Pessimists see: A glass half empty.
Chronic complainers see: A glass that is slightly chipped holding water that isn't cold enough, probably because it's tap water when I asked for bottled water and wait, there's a smudge on the rim, too, which means the glass wasn't cleaned properly and now I'll probably end up with some kind of virus. Why do these things always happen to me?!
The constant negativity issuing forth from chronic complainers presents a huge challenge for those around them. And nothing makes chronic complainers happier than being more miserable than their friends. Trying to remain positive, motivated and productive amid a constant stream of complaints and dissatisfaction can try anyone's patience.
Following are three essential survival tips that can help those who deal with chronic complainers manage a very difficult situation:
Understanding the Chronic Complainer Mindset
Despite how difficult their complaints are for those around them, chronic complainers do not usually see themselves as negative people. Rather they perceive themselves as forever being on the losing end of things, as drawing the short straw on a daily basis. Therefore they see the world as being negative and themselves as merely responding appropriately to annoying, aggravating or unfortunate circumstances.
Even those chronic complainers who do recognize their prodigious complaining output truly believe their unlucky lot in life more than justifies expressing their dissatisfaction to those around them. After all, it is they who have been saddled with more problems and misfortune than most.
Survival Tip #1: Do not try to convince a chronic complainer things are "not as bad" as they think they are or suggest they are "over-reacting" to events and situations. This will only compel him or her to mention 10 additional complaints or dissatisfactions you have not yet heard about, that might give you a better understanding of how terrible their lives actually are.
Understanding What Chronic Complainers Want
Chronic complainers complain to those around them because they seek sympathy and emotional validation. (See instructions about how to provide emotional validation like a champ.) In other words, they want you to validate their experience, to tell them that indeed their glass was chipped, that, yes, they were given tap water rather than bottled water and that, in fact, they should probably get a good night's sleep so they can ward off whatever germs were embedded in that smudge on the rim.
Survival Tip #2: The quickest way to extract yourself from a complaining soliloquy or shorten a grumble-a-thon, is to validate their feelings, express sympathy (which must sound authentic or it will not do the trick: See how to be empathic here), and then redirect the complainer to the task at hand. For example, "The printer jammed on you again? Gee, that's incredibly annoying! I know it's hard to shrug off those kinds of things but I hope you can be a trooper because we really have to get back to the Penske file..."
Understanding what Chronic Complainers Don't Want
Most chronic complainers truly see their lives as being full of hardship and challenge. (Some people's lives are actually full of hardship or tragedy, but I refer here to people whose lives are not unusual in that regard). Chronic complainers' perceptions about their hardships are deeply embedded in their personalities and sense of identity. Therefore, although they tell others about their problems all the time, they are not really looking for advice or solutions.
Even when your advice would actually resolve a problem for them, chronic complainers will not be especially happy to hear it: Anything that takes away some recognition of their "hardship" will be experienced as threatening to their identity and even to their sense of self. Therefore, they often respond to sound advice either by explaining why the suggestions won't work or by actually becoming upset that the person offering it doesn't understand how unsolvable their problem actually is.
Survival Tip #3: In the majority of situations (there are some obvious exceptions), you should avoid offering advice or solutions and stick to sympathy and emotional validation. However, even chronic complainers sometimes encounter authentic problems and make legitimate complaints. In such cases, when distress is warranted, offer sympathy followed by brief but pointed advice and it will probably be accepted and appreciated.
Check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
Copyright 2011 Guy Winch