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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Stop the Office Complainer in His Tracks

Yesterday, I was in line to board a plane behind a man who was complaining about, well, everything. The security line. The plane being delayed. The prices of tickets these days. The way Southwest handles boarding.

When he started hemming and hawing—loudly—about the fact that families got to board first so that young children were guaranteed a seat next to their parents (nope, still no assigned seats on Southwest flights), I almost said something.

But I bit my tongue, figuring there was probably nothing I could say that would stop a complainer in his tracks.

Turns out, though, there was.

In fact, a recent Inc. article describes a step-by-step process that I’ll use next time I’m dealing with a complainer in work or life.

Here’s the secret: Instead of trying to reason with the complainer (“I think it’s clear why the family boarding policy exists”) or counter with optimism (“But just think how warm it will be once we get to Phoenix!”), agree with him or her. Then, more importantly, reframe the argument using softer language.

As the article describes:

Debbie: "I absolutely hate it with a passion when..."
You: "Yes, it's irritating when that happens..."
Debbie: "This totally sucks."
You: "So true. There are some real challenges here."

When you do this, you'll notice that the negative person will actually change her physiology. Her body straightens, her glowering frown lightens up.

Do this long enough and you can actually erode a person's negativity to the point where he can take off the crap-colored glasses.

This may not work right away, but over time, you’ll find that the complainer softens his or her language, too. As author Geoffrey James explains, negative people get stuck in a “feedback loop,” where their negative thoughts and words make them more miserable over time. By letting them know that their arguments are valid, but stripping some of the awfulness out of them, you’ll help them think and act more positively (well, or less negatively, anyway) over time.

Who knows if it would have worked for the gentleman in the airport. But for the eternal pessimist at your office? You’ll probably be working together for a while, so it’s definitely worth a try.

Photo of angry men courtesy of Shutterstock.

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