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Graciously Handling Constant Complainers

By: Maralee McKee

In this letter we’re completing our three-week segment on the etiquette of ending conversations on a high note. Today is all about dealing graciously with the constant complainers in our lives.

Should you offer advice to the complainer when you’re certain you have the answer he or she needs?

What’s the difference between offering information and offering advice?

How can you empathize with the complainer without it adding fuel to his or her fire?

I’m revealing the number one etiquette complaint people share with me-the one thing that drives the world mad, and how you can handle it the next time it happens. (No, it’s not self-absorbed cell phone use; that’s actually number three!)


Steps for Graciously Handling Constant Complainers

We all know a few constant complainers! Years ago I worked with a co-manager who I’m almost certain will find fault with the weather in Heaven when she arrives.

There’s another lady, an acquaintance, whom I had not seen in years. She is the most consistently negative person I’ve ever known. I had been caught dozens of times in conversations with her in which she simply wouldn’t stop her litany of complaints.

To my surprise a few weeks ago, I looked up at a party and saw her waving to me from across the room. I had been spotted. There was nothing to do but walk towards her and say, “Hello!”

I was optimistically hoping that the last five years had made her less pessimistic! No such luck. Thirty seconds into our conversation and she was filling me in on all the health problems, adult daughter troubles, and ex-husband woes I had yet to hear.

So how do we interact graciously with negative Neil or Nellie without rudely ignoring them and their real or perceived problems? To begin, you’ll want to use all the tips I shared last week and the week before about ending conversations.

In addition to those tips, I’ve written special ones here just for the next time you find yourself looking straight into the eyes of the constant and consummate complainer.

1. Express a few words of sympathy, but not too many.

You want to acknowledge the person’s feelings or situation without adding fuel to his or her complaining.

“I’m sorry to hear that your daughter isn’t visiting you as much as you’d like.” Or, “It’s awful that you’re still not feeling well.”

2. Offer a few words of encouragement.

“I bet your son will understand how much you miss him as soon as he has children of his own.” Or, “It sounds like your doctors are really close to
discovering the source of your medical problems.”

3. Share information that might be helpful.

Since information is different from advice, if you know of a resource for the person, feel free to offer it.

“I know the name of a therapist who has an excellent reputation for dealing with family stress.” Or, “My next door neighbor had great luck with his gastroenterologist. I could get you his doctor’s contact information if you’d like.”

4. Keep advice to ourselves, unless we’re asked.

For lots of us (me included), our first instinct is to want to share advice and try to solve the person’s problem. “Why don’t you try this or that?” is our initial response.

Others of us are eager to share stories of people who are much worse off in order to show the complainer he or she has no reason to complain. “I know of a woman who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. It makes us see that our problems aren’t so bad. Don’t you think?”

Sadly, the constant complainer is so self absorbed and eager for attention, that he’ll almost never allow reason and common sense to change his thoughts, feelings or actions.

5. Lead them to their own answer.

Since he or she is probably not open to your ideas, your best option is to try to help the person find his or her own answer.

“Leon, what options do you feel you have in convincing your boss you’re the best candidate for the promotion?” Or, “Donna, what do you think is going to have to happen before your daughter decides to move back home?”

After hearing their ideas, offer them encouragement one more time. “Donna, it seems like you’re close to figuring out what to do. I’ll be thinking about you.” Then begin to change the subject and or close the conversation following the steps I wrote about last week and the week before.

One last thought:

These tips are for use with people who the extent of our relationship with is to be the doormat for their complaints. With those who are dear to us, it’s usually a different story. Everyone occasionally needs a safe place to air their complaints and fears and chat about their feelings of inadequacy in a particular area. If they come to you, be honored. It means they feel safe, respect your ideas, and trust your judgment. Your duty to your friend is to offer them that shoulder of support that only you can!



  • dorothysaul

    Thank you. I find your ideas for being graceful and tactful while maintaining those healthy boundaries very helpful. I look forward to implementing your advice when the next encounter presents itself.