Everyone encounters a constant complainer at some point in their career. Whenever something goes wrong, they need you to drop whatever you’re doing and hear it. Sometimes, they may even see you as the only outlet for expressing their emotions and problems at work.
This can be difficult, because negative emotions are contagious. Without boundaries, one person’s complaining behavior can bring down a whole team.
Here’s how to address an office complainer with compassion ― and without letting their moods and needs throw you off balance.
1. Understand where the complainer may be coming from.
Before you call out a complainer, put yourself in their shoes. It’s helpful to understand what their goal may be in sharing all of their grievances with you.
Gregory Tall, a workshop facilitator with over 15 years of human resources experience, said that workplace complainers fall into three buckets: people who are simply looking for someone to listen and want to be heard, people who are not aware of the matters surrounding their complaints and people who are looking for someone to assist them with a legitimate grievance.
More often than not, complaining is rooted in feeling like there is no access to solving a problem or even to someone who will listen to it, Tall said.
Put the complainer in the context of this strange, hard year. During an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a national reckoning with systemic racism and a divisive president, there are many reasons why you may be hearing more complaints right now from colleagues.
“People are under incredible levels of stress that far exceed, for many of us, the level of stress we’re used to carrying,” said Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, licensed psychologist and career coach. She noted that some complaints right now may be about what race, equity and inclusion does and does not look like, while others could boil down to “Do they care about who I am as a person as I am navigating the pandemic?” Others may be legitimate grievances about how to improve workplace conditions.
2. Consider calling out the behavior if you have a close relationship.
If, every time you get together with a co-worker, they spend most of the time dumping complaints on you, you can bring up the behavior directly and explain how it does not make you feel good.
Horsham-Brathwaite suggested using the end of the year as an opening with language like, “I’m really taking stock of how I negotiate the work environment ... I’m realizing that it has me paying attention to problems more than what actually is going well. And I’m making a commitment to myself that I’m going to have a more balanced perspective. Is this something that you’d be interested in partnering with me on, because it’s my personal goal?”
Resetting that one-sided relationship with a complaining co-worker can also involve recognizing the role you may play in inviting colleagues to share their objections with you constantly.
Do you pride yourself in being the go-to for everyone’s complaints? That can be a sign of work martyrdom, a common affliction in which people overextend themselves with other people’s work problems in order to feel valuable. If left unchecked, it creates situations in which you cannot take care of your own needs, because you are too busy dealing with everyone else’s.
“Sometimes that's the most graceful way to do it, is just don't feed into it.”
3. If you want to redirect the conversation, you can do it tactfully.
If you don’t have a strong relationship with the person, it can be easier to exit the conversation by validating their complaint with, “I hear you, I understand your frustration” and then noting that you have a deadline or other responsibility you have to get to, Tall said.
If you don’t want to engage, think of it as a networking event or cocktail party and politely excuse yourself, Horsham-Brathwaite said: “Sometimes that’s the most graceful way to do it, is just don’t feed into it. And the person learns that you’re not somebody to have that conversation with.”
4. If you want to help, don’t dismiss the complaints.
For some workers, complaining is a part of their creative process. As baker and self-proclaimed complainer Claire Saffitz previously told HuffPost, “It helps me get the feelings out and it makes me better able to do something that feels really hard.”
For team members like this, one solution may be to structure complaining time on meeting agendas, so that grumbles and objections can be expressed without taking over whole conversations. Horsham-Brathwaite said the purpose of this is “to get it out, get it on the table, not to solve it, but then to move to more generative conversation.”
In other cases, people may be complaining not to vent, but to get advice on legitimate grievances like pay inequity, toxic bosses and racial injustice. If your goal is to help your colleague with the complaint, ask them questions so you can understand the source of the grievance and make your feedback helpful. In a scenario in which the complainer dislikes their boss, for example, Tall said your feedback could include giving them options for what they can do about it, such as connecting them with people who have worked with that boss in the past.
Horsham-Brathwaite said to keep in mind that our identity informs our experience, and to not dismiss outright why some people are complaining when other co-workers are not. It helps to ask yourself, “What’s going on with me that may lead me to respond in the way that I’m responding to this complaint? What is going on with the other person and our environment, and is my initial reaction most helpful to this situation?” she said.
For people whose complaints could be resolved if they had more information, Tall said you can validate their feelings and “share some of the piece that might be missing, information-wise ... Oftentimes, even if people don’t agree with it, they’ll feel better simply knowing ... the rationale behind it.”