7 Ways to Deal With a Chronic Complainer
How to get positivity from the world's most negative people.
Posted July 30, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
You know the person.
You see them coming off at a distance, and already...you're tired.
Just the sound of their voice makes a small part of you die a little on the inside.
Yup. It's the chronic complainer. Nothing's ever good enough for them. They love to focus on problems and ignore solutions. This person might be a customer, an employee, a student, a co-worker, a child, or a spouse. On some days, it seems like it's everyone all at once.
How can you effectively deal with these people without resorting to violence or sedatives? Here's the plan:
1. Don't leak your hate.
I get it. This is easier said than done. If the very sight of this person causes you to sneer and roll your eyes, then the future of the entire relationship looks very bleak indeed.
The world's premier facial expression expert, Paul Ekman (he's the guy the TV show "Lie to Me" was based on) says that a contemptuous sneer is the single most dangerous human facial expression that one can make. His research shows that if someone were to see a photo of that facial expression, their bodies would physically recoil. Blood pressure and body temperature are affected. Their immune system would start to break down and fail. Just by looking at a picture of a facial expression!
Dr. John Gottman studies the marriage relationship. If he sees this expression on either spouse in any three- to five-minute interaction, he'll predict a divorce within 15 years. If not, he'll predict a happy marriage. Using that method, Dr. Gottman is 82 percent accurate.
The solution? Quit judging the message before it's been delivered. Also, when you see that person coming, instead of sneering and "leaking" out your contempt, do an eyebrow flash.
2. Do more than just listen.
Ever notice that people become difficult when their needs are not being met? When kids don't get what they want, it's temper tantrum time. Well, guess what? We never fully outgrow that.
We all have a deep need to be heard. We all want our vote to count and our voice to matter. When this is deprived of us, we tend to become difficult.
Consider our poor chronic complainer for a moment. This person is constantly being dismissed. Everyone says to them, "Stop being so negative all the time." or "You're such a pessimist!" Their only play is to respond with the classic, "I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist." In other words, "Hear me! What I'm saying matters!"
The only reason anyone would need to complain about an issue multiple times is if they didn't feel heard the first time. Is it possible that your actions are causing them to feel unheard? Do you steal glances at your device (or watch) while they're speaking? Do you offer solutions too quickly? Do you look at them over the top of your glasses? Are you nodding too fast?
All of these factors and more might be causing them to come back a second time to complain (and a third, fourth, etc.)
What's the solution? Make them feel heard!
3. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Sometimes people air their grievances like it's a National Holiday. They go on and on about the problem. For these moments, it's time to break out the pad and pen.
As soon as they describe their issue, I recommend writing it down and then saying, "Okay, what else?" This question forces them to move on (at least for now) to any other issues that might be lingering in their mind. Asking "what else?" is a great, get-to-the-point whine stopper.
4. Get a pre-commitment.
While you're following the first law of active listening, (repeating back everything you heard them say) it's time to get some things clear. While their goal is to find a resolution to their complaints, your goal is to get them to leave you alone. Let's allow the pre-commitment step to work its magic with one of the following suggested questions:
"When we solve the first problem, won't that automatically solve problem number four?"
"Let's imagine a solution has been reached. How do you feel?"
These have to be framed as questions. Your complainer needs to hear himself say, "Why, I suppose all will be well with the world once this particular nuisance has been vanquished."
It's much more effective than if you were to ask, "So, if I fix this, you'll go away?"
It always surprises me how a simple change in the words we say has a profound impact on the results we get. Oh wait — it doesn't surprise me in the least. After all, I did write an entire book on the power of words. #shameless
5. Nurse their positivity back to health.
This is my favorite step. It's solid proof that light casts out darkness. Oh, and it's also devilishly sneaky.
Now that you've truly heard them and now that they have pre-committed to being satisfied when this is all over, it's time to segue into some good, healthy solution talk. You'll get them there, I promise — even if you have to psychologically "drag" them, kicking and screaming. That's where the sneaky part comes in.
Most people will ask something like, "So, how do you suppose we can solve this problem?"
However, the reality is, you won't get the world's greatest responses just yet. You'll need some strategies to extract better ones. Don't worry, I got you covered.
They will most likely respond with a shrug and an uninspired, "I don't know."
Immediately, your next move is, "What would you say if you did know?"
I know, I know, this shouldn't work. It might even sound silly to an analytical mind. But it does work more often than you might think. Try it and thank me.
If it ever fails you, ratchet things up a notch with this little beauty: "If I had a magic wand and could create any outcome, what would you want to see happen?"
Once you get a decent answer, ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how motivated are you to be the one to make that happen?"
If they say, "10!" then great. Find out what they need from you and have them get started.
If they say anything less than 10, then ask, "Interesting. Why didn't you say a lower number?" They'll find themselves telling you all the reasons why they want to take responsibility for the problem and its solution.
Parent: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how motivated are you to clean your room?"
Teen: "A three."
Parent: "Interesting. Why didn't you say a lower number?"
Teen: "Because I don't like stepping on things at night."
Boom. The teen just provided her own reason and motivation for cleaning her room. Again, much more powerful than any lecture you could give.
Lastly, if you find the complainer refusing to focus on a solution, then it's time for desperate measures. Agree with them. Actually, over-agree.
So, a supervisor might say, "You know, you're right. If we don't fix this, this whole company is going down."
The hope is that the employee will switch tack by saying something like, "Well, it's not that bad." That's not exactly positive, but it's pretty darn close. You've just expertly guided a notoriously negative, chronic complainer back to a positive mindset. Now for the fun part.
6. Give them their first task.
They're ready for an assignment. They've taken ownership of the issue and the two of you have brainstormed solutions. All that's left to do is to break down the solution into an actionable item and let them get started.
If no solution has presented itself, my favorite action item is to have them track the problem for four weeks. They'll either realize that the problem doesn't come up nearly as often as they thought (and you'll never hear from them again...and no more complaining from them!) or, they'll come back with piles of excellent data to help you discover a possible solution. Either way, you win.
7. Wrap it up.
Time to end the conversation! Sometimes, chronic complainers are hard to get rid of. I've got two simple tips for you.
First, check your watch. That's the international sign for, "I gotta go, and therefore, you gotta go." Be sure to only check your watch while you're speaking. Otherwise, you'll be violating the first tip I gave you way back at the beginning of this article.
Secondly, start using past-tense verbs when discussing your discussion. For example, "Hey, I'm glad you came in to let me know about that. I think that was a very productive conversation."
Or perhaps, "Is there any question you need to ask me in order to feel completely confident that we accomplished everything we set out to today?"
They'll say no, affirming the feeling that everything has been accomplished. A pretty good way to end a meeting, wouldn't you say? Kinda like how this is a darn good way to end an article.