What do you do when someone starts complaining?
I’ve tried the ‘gentle redirect’ approach, where you simply try to start to subtly steer the conversation on a tangent. But frankly, it often doesn’t work. If someone is complaining or being critical, and they are passionate about what they are saying, and they think their insight is, well, insightful, they often sort of determined to continue with their story. Even (should I admit this?) with double-teamed attempts to redirect!
And to be honest, especially if they are a fellow believer, I think they deserve a bit more straightforward approach. When I am doing something that doesn’t honor the Lord, I want to know it so I can quit doing it in all situations. Not just be mysteriously redirected so I don’t realize I’ve done something that I could be doing differently. So out of respect for them, a loving conversation may be the most helpful and respectful.
But maybe you don’t have that role in a person’s life yet, or you’re in a conversational setting with several others or at a work meeting or at a family gathering. For whatever reason, maybe you need some tools to more intentionally change a conversation. To be direct but gentle and respectful. To truly give offer a shot at changing the conversational dynamic. So what do you do then when someone starts complaining?
IDEA #1: THE ‘FIX IT’ LITMUS
An article by TalentSmart suggests that listening to complaining can literally rot your brain! They suggest asking how a person can fix a problem. So maybe things like
“What are some ways you can influence this situation to improve?”
“How can you be part of improving this dynamic?”
I would be careful not to actually solve the situation for them. You may help them find the appropriate tools and resources, but be sure to let them take the next step. I’ve had seasons of my life where I’ve spent a lot of time doing what I think is problem-solving, but really I’m just running around trying to fix the latest complaint. If you give a person the tools to solve their own problem, you’ll see quickly if they are talking about a problem to solve or the latest thing to complain about.
IDEA #2: THE ‘LIKE’ BUTTON
Sometimes it’s just a critical conversation, and there is nothing to do or fix. Redirecting the conversation towards things that are admirable may be the best move:
“I think I am clear on the things you don’t like about ____________. What are some of the things you do like about it/him/her?”
Often, the response starts with, “I just wish they would ____________.” So be prepared – it may take saying the statement again to redirect the conversation.
IDEA #3: DIG DEEP
Happy Heart and Mind suggest several ideas, including seeking the reason behind the complaining. If someone seems to be complaining a lot or critical about lots of things – especially if you can remember a time when your conversations with them were different, the best thing may be to check to be sure they are ok.
“Hey – I care a lot about you. It seems to me you’ve had a lot of concerns lately. Are you doing ok?”
This is best used one-on-one… or in a similarly safe setting, such as with their spouse.
IDEA #4: ALL HEART
A touch of empathy may be simply what they are craving.
“I am so sorry you experienced that.”
Be careful with this one – you don’t want to feed the complaining, but it can be worth a try! Some people may sound like they are complaining, but they are really doing their best to try to process something. A touch of care may be all their heart needs.
IDEA #5: THE E.R.
Sounds a bit intense, eh? It’s simply offering Empathy (idea #4), then Refocusing on the task, project, or situation at hand. Empathetic Refocusing, if you will.
“I am so sorry you experienced that. And I do appreciate all you are doing to help with ______. What do you think is the most important next step to move this project/situation forward?”
Psychology Today offers this example at work, “The printer jammed on you again? Gee, that’s incredibly annoying! I know it’s hard to shrug off those kinds of things but I hope you can be a trooper because we really have to get back to the Penske file…”
IDEA #6: BACK ON TRACK
If they are sharing a critical story about another person,
“It sounds like you have some concerns to discuss with that person. I hope your conversation with them goes well. Do you feel like you know what you’ll say to them?”
The response may be along the lines of, “I’m not going to bring it up with them,” or “I don’t think it’s polite to talk with them about it.” Be prepared for your next response. Maybe something along the lines of (very nicely and purely!), “Oh – then we probably shouldn’t talk about it either. Let’s talk about something else – oh how is [hobby, work, kids, etc] going?”
THE LAST RESORT
If the conversation isn’t improving, and you’ve tried - clearly and directly tried, as a last resort, it may be best to excuse yourself. You of course can’t change them, and that’s not your goal. Your goal is to see if there is a valuable way to stay in the conversation. I hugely advocate first trying to openly redirect! But if others are intent on complaining, you may need to say,
“I’m sorry. I’m uncomfortable with this conversation. I’m going to excuse myself.“
Simply say it nicely, politely, purely, and nonjudgmentally. Their conversations are their choice. Which ones you participate in are your choice. Simply nicely step out.
(Now I’m not trying to be pedantic, but it may be helpful to practice saying this a few times. Nicely. Purely. Nonjugdmentally. If you’re anything like me, you’d rather everyone just be nice and get along! To actually have to say this can be a bit deer-in-the-headlights, and you’ll want the words to come to mind quickly.)
If it is at a work meeting, I would suggest adding, “Could someone please come get me when we’re on the next agenda item?” (Yes, I’ve done this, and it went over just fine.)
Again, I am a fan of clearly, nicely, and nonjudgmentally stating your reason. Others may think you’re extreme. That’s ok. It is respectful to them to be clear, and it offers an opportunity to convey the level of impact the conversation has on you. It can certainly be hard! But it is good and right and honoring. And we love that!
WHAT DO YOU THINK? If you have tips or tricks, please share them below! I’d love to hear what’s worked for you!