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Handling Chronic Complainers: The Whiner at Work

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

I spoke last week about managing conflict at the annual meeting of a national non-profit.  One gentlemen asked me,  “How do you handle the whiners?”

In order to figure out the best approach for handling the whiner you need to  analyze and diagnose the conflict.   What is the source of the conflict? There may be multiple conflict sources  that are causing the problem.   In the case of someone who is a constant complainer the source of conflict might be any of the following:  emotions, poor or failed  communication,  unmet  or incompatible needs or negative patterns of behavior.

Emotion as the conflict source

When emotions are an issue it is important to acknowledge feelings and recognize the emotions.  Many leaders are uncomfortable doing this but it is very important.   If people feel heard and acknowledged it takes the sting out of many painful conflicts. 

Communication as the conflict source

If you suspect that poor or failed communication is the problem,  improve the quality and frequency of communication.  Use active listening skills.  I distinguish active listening, which is listening to understand, from reactive listening, which is listening to defend a position.  Set aside dedicated time with the individual to try to understand the issues they are concerned about.  Don’t jump to problem solving until you reflect the content of what they shared with you.   Is it possible to reframe the complaint as a suggestion for improvement?  More information about communication options in conflict an be found here.

Unmet needs as the conflict source

If there are unmet or incompatible wants or needs it is important to try to clarify what the individual is seeking.  Is it possible to meet that need?  If not clearly communicate reasons why. Try suggesting alternative ways for the person to get their needs met.

Negative patterns of behavior as conflict source

A chronic complainer demonstrates a pattern of behavior that is not productive.  Negative patterns of behavior are best handled through enforcement of policies and procedures.  Most organizations have employee handbooks and/or office protocols and customs.  Does your organization have a dispute resolution policy?  Do you have a suggestion box?

It’s a little difficult to tell a constant complainer to stop complaining but if you listen to what underlies the complaint and diagnose the source you may be able to guide that individual to more productive  ways of responding to a problem.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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