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Conquer Chronic Complainers

It’s OK to be blunt about not wanting to hear their negativity and that you must move on

Harvey Mackay headshot
Harvey Mackay
Conquer Chronic Complainers

One stormy night the noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright was awakened by an urgent phone call from a client who had just moved into his Wright-built house.

“There’s a leak in the roof, and the living room is flooded,” cried the man. “What should I do?”

Wright advised, “Rise above it.”

This man had a legitimate complaint, and I suspect Wright found a suitable solution to the man’s legitimate concern.

But what to do about people who complain about everything? We should all rise above chronic complainers. They are a dangerous drain on your energy and are toxic. They can take the energy, creativity, fun, and productivity out of any group.

My good friend, Hall-of-Fame college football coach Lou Holtz, said, “Never tell your problems to anyone … 20% don’t care, and the other 80% are glad you have them.”

Complaining is addictive. Complainers attract complainers. It leaves little room for positive feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and well-being. They are seldom happy. Complainers see problems instead of solutions, making them difficult to work with.

Randy Pausch, the professor who is famous for “The Last Lecture,” said: “If you took one-tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out ... Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”

The Glass Half Dirty

Guy Winch, Ph.D., wrote in “Psychology Today,” “Optimists see a glass half full. Pessimists see a glass half empty. Chronic complainers see a glass that is slightly chipped, holding water that isn’t cold enough, probably because it’s tap water when I asked for bottled water and wait, there’s a smudge on the rim, too, which means the glass wasn’t cleaned properly and now I’ll probably end up with some kind of virus. Why do these things always happen to me?”

So often, those who complain about the way the ball bounces are the ones who dropped it in the first place.

What, then, is the best way to deal with chronic complainers? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Listen. Hear them out so they don’t feel they are being ignored. Maybe you will learn something. But don’t throw fuel on the fire by agreeing with or validating their complaints. Show empathy, but not necessarily sympathy.
  • Ask for solutions. When someone approaches you with a complaint, nicely ask them what they’ve done to improve the situation. They may have some good ideas, or it may abruptly end the conversation. I know one manager who put a complaining employee in charge of a project. The complainer quickly learned how difficult it is to make everyone happy all the time and had a noticeable change in attitude.
  • Be honest. If it gets to be too much, you need to draw the line. It’s OK to be blunt about not wanting to hear their negativity and that you must move on. Or that you are slammed and don’t have time right now. Find a pleasant way to move on but be firm.
  • Have a heart-to-heart conversation. Sometimes you need to call out complainers. This might harm your relationship, but it also might help them realize their bad habit of complaining. Most likely, the complainer will find another audience for their list of grievances.
  • Lead by example. Don’t join in negative conversations. Bring positivity into the conversations. There is almost always something good in every situation; emphasize that.

Author Glenn Van Ekeren says problems, pet peeves, and irritations will always exist. His solutions include avoiding being a problem-finder and instead being a problem-solver. I support that idea completely. I like to start conversations by acknowledging that we have a new challenge to overcome, making sure that everyone knows that there’s an issue. Then we can proceed to find ways to “rise above it,” as Frank Lloyd Wright suggested.

Give In Sometimes

And occasionally, you just can’t win. How do you suppose this fellow reacted in this situation?

A hotel front-desk clerk received a call from an elderly guest who complained, “There is a man across the court taking a shower, and he’s got the blinds up.”

The house detective was sent to the woman’s room to investigate. He looked out her window and said, “I can’t see a man over there.”

“You can’t?” replied the woman. “Get up on that trunk and look again.”

Mackay’s Moral: May you never complain without a cause and never have a cause to complain. 

This article was originally published in the NMP Magazine November 2023 issue.
Harvey Mackay headshot
Harvey Mackay
Published on
Nov 02, 2023
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