Complain, complain, complain! What’s with the constant complaining!!!

Hey, we know you have one, or two, or maybe even a whole posse of complainers. Unfortunately, when left unchecked, a few complainers can gain momentum, and have a damaging effect on those around them.

So, let’s stop complaining about all the complaining. If we take a few minutes to understand why people complain, we can then “reframe” the complaining – and achieve new, and hopefully, more positive outcomes.

Understanding Why People Complain

To deal effectively with complainers and their negativity (both new complainers and chronic complainers), it helps to step back and look at what may have triggered the negativity, or why these people are so invested in being negative, for so much of the time.

There is no one reason why people complain. As with all human behaviour, there are many possibilities. Here are a few common examples:

Scenario 1: The “Done-Wrong-By” Response – The person who feels they have been misunderstood, mistreated, or just plain missed! The infractions (both real and perceived) may be based on something you have done, or that your predecessor was responsible for, or were done by a previous employer, or may even be based on life circumstances beyond the workplace (such as the “mom always liked you best” cause for complaining!)

Scenario 2: I Need to Feel Important – Rather than gain recognition as a result of making positive contributions in the workplace, some may derive a sense of importance or significance through complaining. When constant complaining results in action, or reaction, the person feels (and may be seen as) important, which of course serves to reinforce the complaining behaviour.

Scenario 3: You Made a Mistake! – Yes, sometimes people complain because you really have done something wrong, or that they disagree with your decisions or actions, and they let you and everyone else know about it. Guess what – it happens! As a human being, you do make mistakes. In such cases, it becomes an issue not because the complainer is complaining, but rather how they bring forth the concern.

Regardless of the scenario, whether this is a rare occurrence, a periodic response, or constant behaviour, before responding we must remind ourselves of the universal truth of all such human behaviour:

People do what they do because of what they get when they do it!

People complain because it works for them, or because it has worked for them enough in the past that they have decided to make it a part of their response process. Without beating up on ourselves too much as parents, aunts, uncles, etc., we all know how challenging it can be to NOT give in to the complaining child (we are using that term graciously here!) who makes a fuss over something they want in the mall. The point is, we have all learned that complaining can be productive!

Complaining behaviour in the workplace becomes a challenge based on

  • when it is done (constantly, or at inappropriate times),
  • why it is done (for self-gain without consideration for others, or not for improving things), and
  • how it is done (such as loud and aggressive, or a personal attack on others).

So, whether the person is complaining to improve things, to gain recognition, to get back at someone, or to be left alone, if handled poorly, it can be very destructive to the culture of the organization.

Responding to Complaining

Red wood piece blocks fall of line of dominos

Because every situation is different, and every person brings their own unique way of responding, there is no “one-way” response to complainers. However, there is one common approach when dealing with complainers that heightens your chances of breaking the negative cycle of constant complaints, and that is by reframing the discourse.

Reframing involves changing the frame, or view, through which the other person is approaching a situation. When you prompt them to look at the issue differently, the situation can take on a different meaning, thereby changing the way the person is thinking about and responding to the situation.

If you change the way you look at things,

The things you look at change!

What this means in practical terms is that since people do what they do because of what they get when they do it, by reframing our response to the complainer, responding with something they don’t expect, they are confronted by an outcome that is “not normal.” When we reframe from a positive perspective, it forces the complainer to think and respond differently, and gives you the opportunity to help them and you embark on a more constructive path of discourse.

Just as the complainer has learned to complain, most of us have developed our own response habits as well. Reframing requires practice, and at times, a thick skin – to avoid falling into the usual pattern of back and forth defending, and even counter-attacking, in response to complaining.

We have coined a few names for different reframing approaches, to help you quickly focus on a direction, when you are trying to formulate a reframed counter response to the complainer.

I’m So, So Thankful

When you receive a legitimate complaint (remember, you do make mistakes on occasion!), don’t just accept it, but show your gratitude! Be thankful. Rejoice! Share that you value the person’s willingness to share the concern, and appreciate the opportunity this provides you to make things right. If the situation applies, ask the person for their opinion as to how they think the issue could be resolved. By reframing the situation, you have subtly turned the complaining process around, and made it a positive, collaborative problem-solving opportunity for both of you – which reinforces a positive approach to making improvements.

Dumb as a Post

The complainer has started a rant, saying that everyone in the department is upset about the new policy, and that it only makes things worse. Rather than defend the change, play dumb, and ask questions. With sincerity, ask “Really? Tell me more about why it will make things worse, I really need to know.” By asking about the complainer’s position, you are accepting the person’s concern as legitimate, and then you are able to elicit more details as to what they see as the limitations in the change. This might lead to greater insights for you, and it will alert you to any misperceptions that this person (and probably others) might have. You are now in a position to thank the complainer for bringing this to your attention. Your reframing has disarmed them because of your openness, and they are more likely to be receptive to listening to any explanation you might want to share.

Oh really?…Thank you!

This is the same approach as the previous one, but viewed from the perspective of a complaint about you. When the complainer tells you that you have really screwed up, and everyone is talking about you, be surprised and thankful. “I had no idea that you might see my actions that way! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I will certainly make a point of explaining myself better with others. Thank you again!” If the person was truly trying to be helpful, you have shown your appreciation of their feedback. If they were just trying to take a shot at you to get a reaction, your reframing has totally disarmed them by turning them into a helpful colleague (in spite of their intentions).

Group of four seated women having a discussion.

Mining For Nuggets

When the person is on a full-blown complaining rant, going through a wide range of items, listen carefully to every point, looking for something you can agree with. Then ignore all the other stuff, and say something like, “You mentioned [the one “nugget” you do agree with], and I agree, this is a concern to me too. What do you think would help us deal with it more effectively?” Responding to complainers is similar to handling conflicts – finding something we can agree on builds trust and helps us connect with others, which increases the chances of working together in a more collaborative way. Always be on the lookout for common ground between you and the other person.

What an Opportunity!

Turn the complaint into an opportunity. In fact, if this person is coming to you to complain about an issue, then you must accept that there are likely others who share the concern. So, if you embrace the complainant’s issue as a chance to improve, you have reframed the negative into a positive. “Wow, if we can fix this, what an opportunity to show how great we really are! Thank you for helping us live our Mission, and move closer to our Vision!”

So Glad You Care – You Need a Promotion!

When the complainer raises the issue, try, “This is really an important issue. I appreciate your level of concern, and you have so much insight. You have so much to offer, and could really help us overcome this challenge. How about it?” Perhaps try focusing on past positive experiences where you have been able to work things through, to win them over to the idea of working with you. Encourage them to think about what will be the benefit to them when the current negative situation has been overcome.

Time Out!

There are times when you really don’t have the time to deal with the complaint, or the complainer has caught you off-guard with a touchy issue, and you are concerned that you might resort to an ugly back-and-forth with them. Give yourself permission to take a time-out – with a defined time to re-connect. “Thank you for bringing this to me. I have a call I have to make right now, so when can we meet so you can tell me about this concern without interruptions?” This is a respectful, non-avoiding response, and ensures that you have time to collect your thoughts and compose yourself should it be a contentious issue.

One Small Step For Mankind…

Chronic complainers tend to be tenacious about issues, repeatedly bringing up old issues, or jumping from issue to issue without trying to resolve anything. Complaining for the sake of complaining, and repeatedly going over the same issue won’t do either of you any good. If the complainer is in the “jumping” mode, keep quiet, start writing each item down so they can see what you are recording. When they run out of steam, say, “Is that everything? OK, let’s look at this list, and determine your priorities. What do you see as the most pressing issue?” You have respected their need to unload, and have demonstrated you are willing to systematically address the concerns. 

Time To Move On

Sometimes you are not the right person to deal with the concern. If the issue is out of your hands as a manager, say something like, “Given your concern is about ______ , who should you be talking to about it?” If they don’t know, tell them. If they do know, say, “I agree. So, when are you going to talk to ________ ?” – and seek a commitment from them that they are going to talk to the person responsible for the concern.


If these approaches all start to sound the same, it is because they are! The intent is to provide short, memorable trigger words that describe the response type, as a way for you to quickly reframe your approach and thinking.

Regardless of the starting point, the approaches focus on considering complaining as an opportunity to help the person and you overcome a challenging situation (or behaviour), rather than as problem behaviour unto itself. If you are always on the lookout for common ground between you and the other person, it reframes the dynamic for the complainer, and increases your chances of moving towards constructive exchanges.

Ron Martyn (BSc Recreation, MSc Gerontology) has served as a Recreation Director and Administrator in long term care, and as a Retirement Home Owner. For over 20 years as the Co-Owner of Silver Meridian, Ron and the team have helped LTC managers hone their leadership skills, by empowering and energizing people, and becoming recognized as Inspired Leaders in the provision of care (English only). For information on the latest session intake for the Online DOC/ADOC Leadership Certificate Program (Accredited), click the following link: