Dealing with Difficult People: The Chronic Complainers

Now that we’ve talked about bullies, yes people, know-it-alls, and the passive-aggressive Stealth Destroyers, it’s time to move on to another of my favorites in the roster of Difficult People: the Complainers.

Before I even begin to write about this, though, a full-disclaimer is needed. I grew up in New England. I come from a long line of New Englanders, the kind of small-town New Englanders who are born with stiff upper lips, who pride themselves on being able to put up with anything: rain, snow, sleet, mud, hurricanes, black flies, appliances that don’t work quite right, but do in fact work — sort of, depressions, recessions, pretty much everything except — generally speaking — city people.

As such, I have amazing powers of endurance when it comes to dealing with the ups and downs of work. And so complainers? Complainers bug me.

On the off chance you don’t know what complainers look like, consider this: Complainers complain about everything — the bus is always late, the customers are always idiots, the vendors are out to get us, the doctors don’t know what they’re talking about, the incense wafting from the store next door stinks, the cafe down the block has no taste in coffee, there’s no good food in the neighborhood…you name it, the complainer can complain about it. (Actually, what amazes me about complainers is that they can complain about stuff I never even think of naming, noticing, or reacting to.)

In other words, they’re not the kind of people who will suddenly pipe up at 5 pm, “Don’t you just love the way the sun illuminates that yellow back wall as it’s beginning to set?”

It can be very, very tempting to just ignore complainers, because at a certain point their constant kvetching gets irritating  and it’s human nature to withdraw from an irritant. But believe me, you ignore complainers at your own peril. That’s because complainers really are suffering. They’re not gsuffering from the superficial stuff about which they’re whining. They’re deeply deeply wretched human beings who, when ignored, will feel driven to clamor even more for attention, because they’re feeling misunderstood.

And so the task, dear readers, is to actually express empathy toward complainers. When she comes in swearing about the late bus, simply (and sincerely) say, “yes, it’s so hard to not be able to control your own schedule, isn’t it? I’m sorry you had to go through that.” Don’t get into a 20-minute conversation about the ills of the transit system — just acknowledge the complainer’s complaint, and move on, productively, to the rest of your day.

When the Complainer starts venting about idiotic customers, just say, “you’re right, dealing with customers can be hard. Sometimes I just go batty.” Again — offer a quick gesture of support, then move on with your day.

Of course, part of managing a Complainer (or even just managing a co-worker relationship with a complainer) is recognizing that you need to manage your own expectations. People who complain a lot generally are not the kind of self-starting, take-care-of-business, solve-the-problem-pronto people with whom we want to work. Expecting them to be that would be an exercise in futility. It’s best to appreciate them for what they do well, and know that they won’t ever be a truly supportive team player. Know also that chronic complainers can bring down the atmosphere in an entire office — so work on keeping your own spirits up when you’re around them.