It may be a dismal coworker or complaining boss, but into most professional lives a few negative people will fall. Those who veer from negative to toxic could actually be costing an organization money and productivity.
Businesses also run the risk of complaints becoming contagious. "People see it and they're brought down by it too, or they're saying, ‘Gee, this is an organization that tolerates this kind of thing, I may as well start complaining, too,’" says Robert M. Galford, managing partner of the Center for Leading Organizations and coauthor of Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace.
Sick of listening to the negative spew? If you can’t avoid them altogether, there are several ways to deal with a chronic complainer. Here’s how to change the conversation.
Some people turn into chronic complainers because they feel they’re not being heard. They repeat the negative commentary until someone validates what they have to say, says empowerment speaker and coach Erica Latrice. "Complainers may want you to try to talk them out of their woe-is-me complaining. If you are in an environment where you have to be around complainers a lot, just use the phrase, ‘If I were you, I would feel the same way,’" she suggests. That allows them to feel heard and may short-circuit the need to repeat a negative message.
Sometimes, negative people just need a bit of perspective adjustment, Galford says. Try helping them reframe the situation. You might offer a different perspective on the situation or action that is being criticized. For example, if a coworker is criticizing a company policy, you might offer insight into why the policy was instituted in the first place and the good that it does. "When you say, ‘Let’s think about this in a different way,’ or, ‘If we start first by understanding the reason things are this way,’ you can change the nature of the dialogue," Galford says.
Complainers are energy drains for their audiences. Often, their negative talk can energize them because it places blame on others and boosts their self-esteem, says David M. Long, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the College of William & Mary. So, like other communication styles, accepting that this is the individual’s way of communicating without taking it personally can be an effective coping technique.
One thing you don’t want to do is encourage the person to pretend to be more positive. Long says:
Research on the topic of emotional labor shows that asking people to be positive when they are not is resource-draining for them. People need to be real and authentic, so forced positivity is not the best approach. A better approach might be for the chronic complainers to offer their own solutions to problems, and come up with a plan for reaching that solution.
Sometimes, the complainer actually has suggestions to make the situation better, Latrice says. Ask questions such as: "How would you solve this?" or "What would you do differently?" If the person is serious about change, they may have some good ideas, she says.
If other tactics don’t work, sometimes you just need to call out the behavior, Galford says. By noting that the individual has a habit of being negative, you risk alienating them. But it’s possible they’ve gotten into a habit or don’t realize how they’re coming across, he says. By noting that the coworker tends to take a negative view, you might offer them food for thought about behavior change.
Latrice suggests highlighting your own feelings instead of being accusatory. For example, try: "I feel uncomfortable when I hear that kind of criticism," instead of, "You’re always so negative." Using humor can also be an effective way to defuse a confrontation.
When someone is simply a chronic complainer who doesn’t want solutions or acknowledgement, there’s still hope. The tactic that media trainers have been teaching corporate executives and politicians for decades is called the bridge. Media trainer Trish McDermott, cofounder of Panic Media Training, a firm that helps organizations have difficult conversations with the media, explains that bridging subtly changes the subject by acknowledging what was said, then moving on to another topic.
"Good bridging is, ‘Hey, I'm glad you asked that question. I don't really have an answer, but I have some thoughts. Let me share them with you,’" she demonstrates. "It's not a giant leap for mankind away from the negativity," she says. "It's a small step." Then, continue on to discuss the new topic until you can extricate yourself from the conversation.
Of course, if you’re not getting anywhere with these tactics and the coworker is negatively affecting your workplace, you may need to enlist the help of someone higher on the organizational chart. But, Latrice says, depending on the complainer’s motivations, you may find that simply responding appropriately makes the situation better.