We all know them. They can be funny, irritating, insightful, and they can be like sleeper agents, mild-mannered ninety-five percent of the time, pure evil five percent of the time. I’m talking about complainers.
Now I should just say, when I talk about complainers, I don’t mean people who buy a TV, find it doesn’t work, try to return it but receive poor customer service and make a complaint. I’m not talking about people who complain about climate change, or things that need complaining about, at an appropriate time, in an appropriate place. I’m talking about people who complain about anything and everything.
In her book ‘Managing Difficult People’ Marilyn Pincus talks about how to manage chronic or constant complainers. She correctly says that complainers aren’t doers, it’s usually ‘I wish someone would sort this out’, or ‘they need to do something.’ There are exceptions to this rule, and some complainers have a bit more irony in their complaints, but many are deadly serious. The first thing to do with complainers is recognise their worth. Sure, they complain about the weather, that the air conditioner is too loud, that there isn’t enough salt on their fries, but as Pincus says, sometimes they complain about something that is a problem, which other people don’t complain about. A complainer can sometimes highlight something more polite, or less-sensitive people, will not.
Complainers can sometimes be fun, and they can sometimes get people down, especially over long periods of time. If you’ve got one in your team, establish if their whining is getting on people’s nerves and have a frank word, be positive, make it clear that some negativity is fine. At the end of the day, they might not like what you’ve said, but you need to bring their behaviour to their attention. Ultimately, they’ll probably be grateful, as complainers often alienate people.
But what do you do if the complainer is a peer? Well, you could refuse to engage them with their negativity. If you just give one word answers to their complaints, change the subject, or just let things drop, they’ll soon stop, but they may also stop engaging with you. If you want to keep them friendly without enduring or participating in their complaints, try being positive without disagreeing and see if that changes things. If they say ‘I hate working here,’ say ‘well I know what you mean, but it’s not a bad job, and we’re lucky to have jobs with this economy.’ If you stop feeding them with negativity, often they will stop being negative with you. Now, if someone close to you is a chronic complainer and it’s really getting to you, you need to confront them in as diplomatic way as possible, but don’t sugar coat the truth to the point where what you’re saying is obscure.
Finally, if you think you might be a complainer, well done. Most people don’t know, or not consciously at least. If you think people view you as their local moaner, start by putting a positive spin on complaining; be a bit sarcastic, or a bit ironic. Joke complaining (‘I can’t believe my bonus this year is less than one million dollars, what were they thinking?!’) can be quite endearing and can still provide an opportunity to vent. Finally, it can be very helpful to think ‘do I really care?’ The coffee’s cold – does it matter?
Anyway, that’s enough complaining about complaining…