As family lawyers, we’ve all had one of those days. Our calendar is full of appointments with our least favorite clients, and we get home to field complaints from a teen because their smartphone is “being stupid” and an annoyed spouse asking why in the world you had to get a dog for the kids when all it means it more work for them.
Here they come: a parade of whiners, complainers, ingrates, and critics. All wanting to bend your ear about everything that is wrong in their life and the world and/or everything you’re doing wrong for them.
You know that arguing, rolling your eyes, or even heaving an annoyed sigh is only going to make things worse – but can anything really make them better at this point? How do you deal with these negative people?
Actually, dealing with complainers – at home or at the office – can be easier than you might think.
5 Tips for Dealing with Complainers: Both In and Out of the Office
1. Recognize that you can help to change the perspective of these people
You have to understand that these complainers probably don’t like themselves very much. Life tends to reflect how we feel about ourselves, so if your complainer doesn’t like their life, it is probably because they don’t like themselves very much. To slow the flow of their complaints from a river to trickle, the first thing out of your mouth should be a compliment or acknowledgment (more “I want to acknowledge you for your strength in the face of adversity – that’s a quality I really admire about you” and less “I like your shoes!”). They won’t be expecting that! They are looking for someone to invite to their pity party – or to blame for everything that is wrong with their life and/or divorce settlement. Don’t be that person! You can’t – and shouldn’t – act as their therapist, but you can learn some communication techniques to help interrupt their downward spiral. For example, try asking counterintuitive questions to help break their train of thought, such as:
“What is the worst thing that could happen?”
“How old do you feel right now?”
Complainers are looking for someone to invite to their pity party – or to blame for everything that is wrong with their life and/or divorce settlement. Don’t be that person!
2. Realize that you are attracting these people to you for a reason
Do you think that most of your clients are truly unreasonable, ungrateful, stubborn, and/or impossible to please? How about your personal relationships: any chronic complainers there? Take a hard look at yourself and ask if any of those negative descriptors could apply to you. How are you negative? If you keep attracting the same kind of clients – and perhaps the same kind of spouses – you need to recognize that you are the only common denominator in those professional and personal relationships. Read a book, take a course, or seek therapy to help you shed some of those toxic beliefs and habits. “Be the change you want to see”; you might be surprised to find that people in your life are much more reasonable/grateful/flexible than you originally thought they were.
3. Understand that you are dealing with someone who has a victim mentality
Life happens to them, never for them. There is a philosophy that we create everything we experience for the purpose of becoming better people. When dealing with complainers, kindly and patiently assist them to take responsibility for their part of the situation and to become better people. Either they will change and become a better person, or they will stop coming to you to complain. Either way, you win!
4. Talk to the complainer in terms of emotions
Ask them how they feel about the situation and what they could do to change how they feel. We can’t change what happens, but we can change the way we feel about it. This is the ultimate empowerment tool: to help people feel positive about what happens in their lives. Complainers are usually caught in an emotional loop. They feel depressed, and they want someone to feel depressed with them. Instead of participating in their depression by taking on their emotional baggage, help them feel positive. Tell them you are impressed with how much they care, or how compassionate they are. Get their thinking off of what they are perceiving and on how they are feeling.
5. Ask the complainer what they think should be done
They are looking for someone to listen to them and if you look for a solution with them, they will feel heard. Keep looking for a solution rather than focusing on their complaint. You can even validate how they are feeling without making them a victim. Tell them “I can understand why you feel that way” or “let’s figure this out”. When you focus on the solution rather than the problem, you win.
It is important not to be sucked into the negativity of the complainer. They are looking for sympathy more than a solution. If their complaints are legitimate, look for ways to correct the situation. If their complaints are simply attention-seeking, look for ways to change how they are feeling. You don’t have to change how they are thinking, just how they feel about it.
A Word About Gossip
Are you a gossip? Do you speak negatively about your colleagues, opposing counsel, or judges behind their backs? Complainers often love to talk about other people – especially other people’s failings. In other words, they’re gossips.
If someone approaches you to complain about something a third person has said or done, find the silver lining. Ask the complainer to say something positive about the third person, or to brainstorm ways to solve the problem if there is a legitimate issue. Conversely, if you are dealing with complainers who have complaints about something you have said or done (a rare occasion, to be sure!), be a compassionate adult: listen to them without interrupting or deflecting, and if there is something you need to change, take responsibility and change it.
Finally, if you can stay positive in the face of negativity, you may just create a win-win situation by bringing the complainer up rather than letting them bring you down.
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