What to Do When Co-workers Complain

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We all need to vent occasionally. But if you’re dealing with a habitual complainer, you might need to put your foot down. Even if you listen and nod, it can imply that you agree.

Workloads, bosses, clients, co-workers—so many things in our business lives are imperfect. Most of us choose to overlook the small imperfections and instead focus on what we do enjoy about our work, trying to find the positive. But we’ve all worked with people who don’t do this—someone who’s a chronic complainer.

Although sometimes justified, the complaining almost seems to be how this person starts a conversation. “You’ll never guess what he did now …” was a typical greeting from the office manager of a small office where I worked briefly. Admittedly, at first the juicy details of our boss’s latest “screwups” were intriguing, and I listened and laughed. But it was a pattern, and eventually, I grew tired of hearing about it. I kind of felt bad for the boss and all his supposed missteps. And I hated starting each day in such a negative way.

I started trying to change the subject, at first subtly and then more directly: “Hey, not to change the subject just when it was getting good, but do you have any idea where we ordered the brochures last time?” I tried defending him, saying things like, “Sounds like he was definitely having a bad day.” I suggested she talk to him about her observations. I tried greeting her first and beginning a conversation about my kids or hers. Nothing seemed to work, and she seemed annoyed that I wasn’t as eager to join her diatribe.

Eventually I stopped her mid-stride and told her that I was uncomfortable with the conversations and it made it hard for me to be enthusiastic in marketing the office. She apologized and said she knew it was a bad habit and would try to stop. It put a stop to the complaining, but also a noticeable strain on our relationship.

Experts offer the following suggestions for dealing with and shutting down a complainer:

  1. Make sure you’d be comfortable if the things you say were repeated to your boss, advises time.com
  2. Don’t mindlessly agree, suggests forbes.com. Be cautious when the complaining is about a person or task. Agreeing just to end the conversation can inadvertently make you an ally. When confronted, the complainer may use your name: “I’m not the only one who feels that way ….”
  3. Simply acknowledge what the person is saying: “Oh, that must have been really frustrating for you.” This helps the person feel heard and understood.
  4. Ask if they want your opinion, and then suggest things you’ve tried successfully to solve the same problem. Forbes suggests that you don’t try to convince them … you’re just offering advice after they’ve given you permission to give it.
  5. Suggest that your coworker try to solve the problem by speaking directly with the person that’s causing them to complain.
  6. Point out the positive aspects. If your co-worker is complaining about too much work, point out that some of the work is helping to build new areas of expertise or put them in contact with other departments.

A certain amount of complaining is normal, even necessary to blow off steam (Find out more about Why We Complain … here). And being a good person means listening sometimes. But working with a chronic complainer can make for a miserable workplace. And agreeing with him or her is rarely the right approach and can damage your career. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to shut down a chronic complainer, if you’re less receptive, less quick to agree, they’ll likely take their complaints to someone else.

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