How to Respond to a Complainer

Ask some folks how they’re doing, and they’ll tell you they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. This can be a completely reasonable answer because we all have times when we feel the same way. However, some have a pattern of going on and on about their problems every time you see them.

We’ve all met people who complain constantly about physical problems or other things going wrong in their lives. They seem to believe they’re magnets for misfortune and nothing is ever positive. How should you handle it when someone has a habit of complaining to you?

First, practice compassion. As annoyed or impatient as you may feel, try to remember that the grumbling is an expression of pain. Even if the complaint seems unimportant to you, or even if it’s the complainer’s own fault, the pain is real to them. To set an appropriate boundary, kindly tell the person how much time you can spend with them and then do your best to compassionately respond, knowing that your words may be the only source of encouragement they receive that day. Sometimes complaining is a way for a discouraged or lonely person to get the emotional support they need.

So, how do you respond in a way that’s caring but not enabling an unhealthy pattern of negativity? Sometimes the best you can do is to simply say, “I’m so sorry that you are having a difficult time. Can I do anything for you?” Someone who is just dumping their negative emotions on you will probably decline your offer. However, if they want help, be prepared to follow through with what you are able and willing to do.

Other times, it can also be helpful to break the stream of complaints by asking questions such as, “Given the challenges you just described, what do you plan to do about it?” Helping the complainer redirect their thoughts toward a solution-focused mindset may help them to become more proactive in dealing with their problems. It’s surprising how often people complain without ever considering how they can solve their problems. Challenging the person to pursue solutions can help them get unstuck. Plus, it can help you feel less annoyed.

If you have a close relationship with the chronic complainer, it can at times be very appropriate give honest feedback about what you think about their pattern of complaining. For example, “I really care about how you feel and I know you are dealing with some very real challenges in your life. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to you because it seems as though your attention is only focused on real or potential problems in your life rather than on the things that are going well or what you are doing to effectively deal with your problems.”

You may or may not receive a pleasant response from the complainer, but it may just be the “reality check” the person needs to empower them to address their problems instead of just helplessly feeling like the “universe is out to get them.” Or it might help them refocus with a more positive attitude. The goal in any healthy relationship is to be appropriately open, honest and direct, not just saying things that you think will please or appease.

People have a basic need to feel understood, and we all need a little extra kindness at times. Taking a few minutes to listen and to be open and compassionately direct won’t cost you that much, and it could make a big difference to a person in pain.

Live, Work and Relate Well!

Dr. Todd


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