How to Deal With the Complainers in Your Life
By Dr. Alan R. Zimmerman
Remember your first couple of days at work? They were exciting. You had your orientation session, learned about the history of the company, became familiar with its products, and discovered the benefits of working there.
Or remember your first days as a new team leader, supervisor, manager, or even as a new executive? That was extra exciting.
Then some old timer came along side you and said, "That all sounds good, but wait until you've been here a while. You'll see what it's REALLY like!" And your feelings switched from excitement to trepidation. You began to wonder what you got yourself into.
Simple. You got yourself into the average workplace today ... where whining, complaining, griping, gossip, and excuse making are common. As Roxanne Emmerich points out in her book, "Thank God It's Monday," one out of every three payroll dollars is LOST due to negative, disengaged employees. And more than 91% of people spend a huge chunk of their day frustrated by their coworkers' dysfunctional behaviors and think regularly about quitting their jobs.
So what can YOU do if you're stuck in a work situation like that? You could quit and go elsewhere. But that may not be practical in today's economy. Besides that, another company may have just as many complainers. A better option is to learn how to deal with complainers ... in your organization, amongst your customers, or even at home.
1. Control your attitude.
In the beginning, you may have decided to simply ignore the complainers. It was no big deal. But they didn't stop. And their constant complaining began to irritate you ... even anger or depress you.
You can't let that happen to you. You can't let the complainers determine your emotional, financial, relational, or occupational destiny. You've got to do something to change yourself and the complainers when you find yourself in that situation.
You've got to start with your own attitude. Remind yourself that you've got a job to do. You're paid to do it. You're a professional. And you refuse to be brought down to the complainer's level.
But you've also got to take control of your attitude towards the complainers. If you think of them as a pain in the neck, if you approach them as the enemy, they'll become even more difficult to handle.
Instead, think of them as people with problems that need to be solved. With that kind of an attitude, you have a better chance of getting through to them and turning off their complaints.
2. Bring a specific complaint to the surface.
More often than not, complainers complain about a variety of issues a lot of the time. They act like a hose, spraying their garbage over anything or anyone in sight.
And it's no wonder. In 2010, The Conference Board research group reported job satisfaction has fallen to a record low of 45 percent, the lowest level ever recorded in 22 years of surveys! Extrapolating from that number, more than half (55 percent) of US workers say that they are "dissatisfied" with their jobs. And the most dissatisfied workers are under the age of 25 ... where 64 percent of them say they are unhappy in their jobs.
Now you could sit down with your complainers and ask them to explain all their complaints in detail. But don't do that. You don't have that much time. As it stands, Emmerich reports that managers already spend 37% or more of their day dealing with dysfunctional behavior.
A better approach would be to get specific. Tell the complainer that you've noticed his apparent job dissatisfaction, and you would like to start the process of understanding his feelings.
Of course, the complainer may have several issues that are upsetting him, but it's almost impossible to deal with more than one issue at a time. Things simply get too emotional. So as a rule of thumb, I often advise leaders, managers, team members, and even families to stick with one issue at a time, one week at a time.
And once you've brought a complaint to the surface...
3. Honor the other person's perspective.
Show some respect for the other person's point of view ... even if it is way off base ... because to him or her, it is the truth.
The important thing at this stage of the conversation is honor ... not who's right and who's wrong. So show the other person your genuine concern for her feelings and your honest respect for her perspective. When you honor the other person's perspective, you reduce the intensity of her complaint.
Unfortunately, that's not happening in some workplaces. When someone complains about all the layoffs and the unreasonable work load, she may be told to shut up, because "You should be thankful you've even got a job." While that may be true, it's not helpful.
When a worker gets that kind of response to her complaint, she may STUFF her feelings. With twice the work and half the friends, she may be so filled with fear and stress that she doesn't say anything, lest she end up in the unemployment line as well.
But let me remind you that a shut-up, non-complaining workforce is not necessarily a happy and productive workforce. As The Herman Group warns ... "just because employees are not leaving does not mean they are engaged ... in fact, over 45% of today's workers are disengaged, costing their employers millions."
That being the case, you're always better off HONORING the other person's perspective than ignoring it ... even if you don't agree with it. As the old "Farmer's Almanac" puts it, "Meanness don't jes' happen overnight." There's some history behind the other person's complaint, and that history needs to be understood.
4. Practice empathic listening.
Complaints and complaining people can be tricky. As American humorist Will Rogers acknowledged, "Lettin' the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier 'n puttin' it back." So you need to have some excellent communication skills working for you.
Let the other person talk. Give him time to explain his complaint, share his feelings, and get it out of his system. Give him time to vent. As that's happening, let your nonverbals show that you're listening. Nod your head, maintain eye contact, and say "uh-huh." When the complainer begins to repeat himself, you know the venting is almost over.
Then move to clarification. Try to repeat exactly what he said. Don't put in too many of your own words because he might find something else to get upset about. You want the complainer to feel understood. You can even ask questions to get more information and more clarification.
"Both of us had been single for 20 years, and believe me it is tough to move from a glowing courtship to the reality of figuring out how to be married and actually live together! Alan, without the strong communication foundations we established by patiently understanding each other with the help of your 'Brave Questions' book, there would have been so many times when we would have retreated into silence, hurt feelings, and gross misunderstandings. Instead, we had learned to be open and honest with each other. (Okay, there have been some ups and downs; but they haven't lasted very long!) Both my husband and I are so sold on your book that we gave it as a wedding present to one of our closest friends, and I have another book in my 'gift closet' just waiting for that next opportunity. Thank you, Alan! What a great gift you have given us all!".
As you practice empathic listening...
5. Avoid defensiveness.
Most people want to defend themselves when someone complains. They want to justify their actions, stand up for the company, or point the finger of blame somewhere else.
You've got to resist this at all costs. Don't make excuses or argue. At this point, it's your job to demonstrate the fact you're there for him with a statement such as "Tell me more."
Somewhere along the way, you might also say, with true sincerity, "I'm sorry." The statement has nothing to do with admitting fault, but it has everything to do with saying you're sorry he's upset. You're sorry he's frustrated. You're sorry he is not happy with something you or someone in your company did. Saying you're sorry expresses your empathy, avoids defensiveness, and diffuses negative emotions.
Let the complainer know that he or she is not alone. You're in this situation together, and together you can find some kind of solution.
It's kind of like Joe and Lars who came to America from the old country. As they traveled on an old, beat-up freighter crossing the North Sea, a huge storm arose. Joe said, "Lars, Lars, da ship is going down." Lars replied, "What do we care? It's not our ship."
The point is ... when there's a complaint in your organization; you can't ignore it ... because you're all in the same ship. And what affects one person probably affects a lot of other people as well.
Finally, in the process of dealing with complainers...
6. Work towards a mutually acceptable agreement.
You want to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. The quicker the resolution, the less it will affect your overall relationship. So thank the other person for bringing the issue to your attention ... because you want your communication to be as candid as possible.
Then ask him how he would like his complaint to be handled. And if you can do what he asks, just go ahead and do it. That's easy. That's the fun part in conflict resolution or customer service.
However, if you can't give the other person exactly what he wants ... which is often the case ... tell him what you CAN do to make things better. If you spend too much time telling him what you CAN'T do, he'll just get more upset. Stick with what you CAN do, and somewhere, in the give and take between the two of you, you will find an understanding or a solution that is better than the complaint you started with.
Jane Wagner said, "I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain." I don't know about that, but I believe we can develop the communication skills to deal with those complainers.
Instead of getting upset with your complainers, use these tips to turn them around.
As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for a Free Sneak Preview