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How to Deal with Complainers — 2 Approaches

People who complain fall into two categories: those who complain because they want help in resolving a problem, and those who complain because they want sympathy. Often the complainers themselves don’t understand why they’re complaining, so it’s up to you to figure it out for yourself.

The Complainer as Problem Solver
The first category of complainer is easier to deal with. They have a problem and they sincerely want the problem solved. The problem may be simple — “my computer keeps crashing” — or very complex — “children are starving in Africa.” But this first category of complainer isn’t just looking for sympathy — they honestly want help in solving the problem. For simple problems you might be able to provide help yourself, or you might know a good resource to provide the assistance the complainer needs. Once you provide the help or the resource, the complainer stops complaining on that subject, but may move on to complain about something else.

For complex problems it’s more difficult to provide assistance. The problem won’t be solved with a simple solution, but you might be able to offer some general guidance on first steps toward a solution. Moving in the right direction often provides relief for the complainer — he or she feels like they’re on the way toward a solution.

The Complainer as Sympathy Seeker
The second category of complainer is more difficult to deal with. These people aren’t looking for solutions — they’re looking for sympathy. This type of person may feel overwhelmed by certain circumstances and possibly by life in general. They want to feel that they’re not alone in their perception of things being the way they are. They’re looking for the psychological equivalent of a hug — a sense of sharing that enables them to face the world knowing that no matter how bad the world might be, we’re all in this together.

Sometimes this second category of complainer can get out of hand. They complain so much and so loudly that their friends and co-workers begin to tune them out — to ignore their complaints and discount their importance. The problem is compounded if the complaints are repeated over and over. The complainer gets a reputation as a negative person, and people begin to avoid the complainer. If things go this far then intervention may be required. The complainer must be confronted and told that they need to consciously edit their words or risk losing the respect of their coworkers and friends. Constant complainers are annoying.

The Non-Complainer
There’s another type of person who never complains at all. Some people are naturally optimistic, and they see the good in most situations. They seldom complain because they see nothing to complain about.

Other non-complainers have learned to work within the system. They don’t complain — they act instead. If they have a problem then they actively try to solve it. If they want help then they ask for it instead of complaining. This is usually a more productive route toward problem resolution, and it’s much less annoying to coworkers and friends.

For this type of person, complaints turn into “war stories” — anecdotes shared over dinner or drinks about problems they encountered and how they solved or avoided them. The war-stories approach gains the same sympathy and comradeship that complainers seek, but without the annoying negative side effects. The key difference between a complaint and a war story is that a war story has a resolution while a complaint is open-ended and leaves the audience with unresolved tension and stress. War stories are appreciated when shared among a group, especially if they’re told in a funny way. But care must be taken to avoid telling the same war stories over and over; repetition destroys the value of the story.

A Memorable Complainer
Many years ago I had an employee, Steve, who constantly complained about everything. Some of the complaints were problems that could be solved. But most of the complaints were general comments on his work environment that weren’t problems to anyone else. Steve had an overly sensitive sense of “the way things ought to be,” and anything that didn’t live up to his standards resulted in an immediate complaint to me as his boss as well as to his co-workers.

I tolerated Steve because he was good at his work, but he was definitely high maintenance. I tried to help Steve see that his volume of complaints was inappropriate, and I counseled him on a combination of acceptance and quiet problem-solving. This seemed to help, but not enough.

Steve eventually got fed up with what he considered an unacceptable work environment,  and he left to join another company. But he soon discovered that the other company was much worse, and his new boss was less tolerant of Steve’s complaining behavior. Steve sheepishly returned to me asking for his old job back, and I consented. If Steve had been less good at his job then I would have never taken him back. You can only deal with so many high maintenance employees at a time.

Everyone is different. All of us have good personality traits and bad ones. Complaining is a behavior that can come across as annoying to most people, so if you’re a complainer then you should make an effort to change. Changing doesn’t mean that you have any fewer problems — it just means that you try to be more positive, that you try to make requests instead of complaints, and that you’re selective about the problems you take to other people.

And if you’re on the receiving end of constant complaints, then try to refocus the complainer on a more appropriate behavior. Show the complainer this article, and maybe he or she will get the message. But above all, try to be sympathetic.  Sympathy is what most complainers are really trying to get, so give it to them once in a while.

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