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Dealing With Toxic People in the Workplace: Turning Complaints Into Requests

By Martha Lasley
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Every work place has its chronic complainers. You know who they are. They tell you in painstaking detail what’s wrong with every department, every individual, and every decision. They plan their day, their coffee breaks and lunches by drifting from one ear to another honing their ability to pick apart what’s wrong - with the company, with their coworkers, with politics, and with life.

Critics can carry a charged air of toxicity that fosters a sense of hopelessness and despair, but let’s take a look at the value they bring. Noticing what’s missing is a special talent that can lead to new awareness and fresh change. With a little support we can help people make the leap between identifying problems to coming up with meaningful solutions. If you can stop thinking of them as chronic complainers, critics or toxic people, and start thinking of them as people who want things to be different, you’re more likely to create a workplace where everyone can contribute.

A complaint is simply an unspoken request, so assume the speaker has a positive intent and wants resolution. No matter where you are in the hierarchy of your organization, you can support people in shifting their complaints into requests. When people focus their energy on what’s not working, they may feel powerless and don’t know how to ask for or get what they need. Sharing complaints may be a strategy for belonging, being seen for expertise, or creating relationships. Working on solutions can cultivate new ways of building relationships.

Underneath the judgments, evaluations, opinions and evidence, if you listen between the lines for what people really want, you can help them formulate requests. The simple practice of asking, "What is your request?" helps people turn their complaints into new possibilities. In addition, you empower them to own the problems and to actively participate in creating the solutions. Other questions you can pose:

What do you want?
How can you fix that?
What are you going to do about it?
Where can you start?
Who can help you with that?
How can I help?

To turn your own complaints into requests, ask specifically for what you want. What actions or observable behavior changes would you like to see? For instance, if someone is unaware of the impact of their complaints—on you, on their coworkers, on the company, on their performance reviews—your honest feedback could be a great gift to them. Vague requests to "change your attitude" or "straighten up" aren’t specific and leave people floundering. It’s not enough to ask people to stop certain behaviors. When you ask people to stop doing something, they tend to replace the old behavior with a worse behavior. So ask for what you want, not what you don’t want. Be specific. Don’t expect someone else to read your mind. Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Keep it about their behavior, not who they are as a person.

Every request has four possible responses:

  • Yes
  • No
  • I have a counter offer
  • I’ll get back to you on that

Whenever you make a request, stay open to the answer. Be willing to hear something other than "yes." A counter offer could open the dialogue that leads to a mutually agreeable solution. When people throughout the organization develop the skill of making doable requests, the atmosphere changes from despair to hope and new possibilities.

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