A manager I coach came into our last session and he was obviously frustrated. “Bob” had someone on his team that was a chronic complainer. Bob had lost his cool with him and said some things he wished he hadn’t. Now Bob has two problems to deal with: the complainer and his latest reaction to the complainer. Did I say Bob was frustrated?
Here is the advice I gave him and the advice I would give to you for effectively dealing with a complainer at work, or anywhere.
Hold them accountable for dealing with what they are complaining about.
How do you do that? Ask them this simple question: “What are you going to do to make this better for yourself?”
Now before you ask them this question, listen to them for an appropriate amount of time. If they are really a complainer, this isn’t the first time they have complained about the situation at hand, so you don’t have to listen for more than a few minutes. Ten minutes is way too long, one minute is too short. You get the idea.
- Empathize with them “Chris, I can tell you are frustrated about this. I appreciate you bringing this to me and I want to be helpful.”
- Ask their permission to hold them accountable “Chris, are you open to any feedback from me?”
- Hold them accountable “Let me ask you Chris, what are you going to do to make this better?”
Now, at this point, a true complainer is going to do their best to avoid personal responsibility and accountability. They will tell you there is nothing they can do. They will tell you they have done everything possible. They will blame others. They will go right back into their complaining.
That’s fine. Your job is to jump in after a minute and be a broken record. Ask Chris again what he is going to do to make things better, to improve the situation.
Chris is going to ignore you again and repeat what he has already said. Again, that’s fine. It’s to be expected. That’s what Chris knows to do. Your job is to interrupt Chris’s pattern again and be a broken record again and ask him the same question: “What are you going to do to make this better, Chris?”
Ask the same question but vary it a little. Be empathetic (I know, it’s hard to do at this point, but do it anyway) and soften the blow of the question. “Chris, I’m really sorry you are in this situation, I really am. I want to help you with this and I’m wondering what you are going to do to turn this around?”
Complainers are not used to being held accountable and they will resist what you are doing. But if you hold your ground and put the responsibility where it belongs (on them) they will do one of two things: they will come up with a solution or they will end the conversation and leave.
If they come up with a solution, congratulate them and ask them to let you know what happens.
If they leave, here’s what will likely happen: they will come back at some point with the same complaint. Same problem, same complaint.
But there will be one big difference. Now you know what to do.
Do it again and if they leave again without a solution, they won’t be back. In the off chance that they do come back a third time, you still know what to do. And if you do, I can guarantee you they won’t come back a fourth time.
Problem solved. At least for you, and that’s what matters. You can’t save every complainer but you can save your own sanity.