Three steps for handling chronic complainers

Cartoon of whining manThe chronic complainer. We’ve all encountered them. They love describing all the things that are wrong in the world – and not just once. It’s the same story every time we encounter them.

And they suck the energy out of the room! We quickly start avoiding them, whether by running to the bathroom when we see them coming, or choosing not to answer the phone when their name pops up on caller ID.

Often, though, we either don’t want to cut them out of our lives, or we can’t (a co-worker, for instance). So what can we do? Here’s a simple three-step process.

Step One

Begin by making sure the person has a valid reason for coming to talk with you. Do they have a question? Is there something that needs to be done or information that needs to be conveyed? If there’s no specific issue, well, you’re a busy person. “Hey, great to see you! I wish I had time to talk, but I’m on a deadline – gotta run!” (Or, of course, if they’re hanging out next to your desk – “Sorry, can’t talk right now! I’m on a deadline – see you later!” They’ll have a hard time standing there whilst you continue with your work … as long as you stay firm and avoid getting sucked in.)

Step Two

Assuming there’s a real reason for communicating, begin the conversation by saying, “Hey, look, I’ve only got ten minutes right now. Is that enough time?”

If it is, great.

If not, then schedule a meeting later in the day (or week) for exactly the amount of time they say their issue will take. (If you do this, be sure to meet at their desk rather than yours, so you can easily walk away when the time is over.)

Step Three

When you reach the time limit – either the initial ten minutes or the longer time scheduled on your calendar – be firm. “Okay, I’ve got to go now – we’re at the end of the time I had available!”

It’s that simple.

One more thought

It really is that simple, but that doesn’t mean it will feel easy and natural – at least, not at first.

As nice people, we tend to get sucked into listening for longer than we should. It can feel not-nice, unsupportive, or unfriendly to cut someone off.

But respecting our own needs and setting firm boundaries is an important part of keeping ourselves sane. Interestingly enough, it actually increases other people’s respect for us.

Of course, if someone has a real problem that they want your help with (and they actually take action to improve their situation), you’ll help them.

But the chronic complainer is a different story. And while you may feel sad for them, that doesn’t mean you have to join them in the complaint cycle.