How To Deal With Chronic Complainers, From A Therapist



We ALL complain about stuff once in awhile. Some a little bit more than others. But a chronic complainer does it just about all the time.

How many of you know or have known chronic complainers? Maybe a family member, a friend or acquaintance, or how about a co worker…

I’ve known quite a few of them throughout my life. I can tell you this (and you know what I’m talking about), even after just several minutes with one of them… I feel kinda drained, bummed out, and plain old yucky.

For those of you old enough to remember, do you recall that comedic skit they used to run on Saturday Night, “Debbie Downer”? Everything she said was a downer, a complaint, woe is me… (it’s a good example of what I’m talking about here).

By the way, I haven’t watched SNL in years due to their incredibly extreme one-directional political bias. Just saying…

I’m not sure what exactly causes someone to be a chronic complainer.

I suppose it might have to do with a number of things including a lack of confidence, the need to get people sympathizing with them, little motivation, being “needy”, or looking for attention, maybe laziness thrown in for good measure…


Recognize When Its Time to Escalate

If behaviors do not change, it’s time to move from coaching to counseling. ​Coaching is designed to elicit positive change in behaviors by offering guidance, encouragement, and specific action steps.

Counseling offers clear feedback that the behaviors are unacceptable and identifies the implications of failing to change them. When counseling, you can help yourself by:

  • Working with your human resources manager to structure a counseling approach and plan.
  • Ensuring you document all of the prior feedback, coaching and counseling.
  • Presenting the employee with a performance improvement program that clearly defines the outcomes for improving or failing to do so.
  • Ensuring you follow up with the employee at the established times, and measuring their performance only against the agreed-upon parameters.

While chronic complainers seem harmless on the surface, the damage may become irreparable in the long run. You owe it to your team, your firm, and yourself to remove toxic behavior from the workplace.

2. They seek only validation:

The purpose of complaining is to let feelings out and feel that people listen to you. Basically all they want to see is whether other people are having the same problem. They become extremely happy if they do and then join them it complain more.

1. Listen:

Before responding, you have to listen. It is as simple as that.

Why is this part so crucial? Because you need to figure out whether their problem is legit or not.

If they complain how the coffee machine ditches them every time, it’s not legit.

This will help you to figure out whether it is even worth your time.

Addressing a chronic complainer

As an employer, it’s important to address chronic complainers as they arise. The better you’re able to do this, the more positive your workplace will be. Encouraging positive workplace experiences and preventing chronic complainers helps boost company morale. Here are the steps to take when addressing a chronic complainer:

  1. Listen to their needs
  2. Validate and sympathize
  3. Redirect the situation
  4. Provide short, minimal advice
  5. If necessary, call out the behavior

1. Listen to their needs

When addressing a chronic complainer, it’s important to listen to what their needs are and address what they’re saying. They want to feel heard and know that you care about what they have to say. The complaint may be valid and something that needs to be addressed in the company. Make sure you’re being an active listener and that your attention is solely devoted to them. Allow them to vent while validating their complaints and concerns.

2. Validate and sympathize

Next, it’s important to validate their feelings by offering them support. You should also sympathize with how they’re feeling. Makes sure you’re being genuine and expressing true concern over their complaints. This will ensure they don’t shut you out or feel as though you’re being sarcastic.

3. Redirect the situation

When addressing a chronic complainer, it’s important to not only deflect but also redirect the situation or conversation. This involves you subtly changing the topic of conversation. When you do this, you’re allowing them to change their mindset and get back to the task at hand rather than focusing on their disappointment. 

4. Provide short, minimal advice

Though most chronic complainers aren’t very accepting of advice, if you choose to give it or if they ask you for advice, make sure to keep it brief. This will increase the odds of them not rejecting it outright. Consider asking them how they plan to rectify the problem they’re facing. 

5. If necessary, call out the behavior

In some cases, you may need to call out their behavior. It’s important to note that this step should be avoided if at all possible, however, if the situation warrants it, it’s best to directly address them. Consider asking them if they want your advice on the matter. Be understanding and keep it brief. If they answer “yes” to your question, they’re giving you permission to share your opinion. When you respond, you’re simply doing what they asked.

Tread lightly when doing this step since you’ll risk them not wanting to hear you out at all. If done successfully, they’ll come to see their habit of complaining and how they’re being perceived by others.

Related: How to Motivate Your Employees

Solicit Input and Offer Timely Feedback

Chronic complainers are crafty at remaining below the surface and out of earshot of their managers. However, engaging with all of your team members allows you to focus on individuals and behaviors that detract from morale and performance.

Use straightforward approaches, conversations, formal surveys and 360-degree reviews to build a body of evidence on the group and individual performance. Once you’ve gained context for a team member’s complaints, it is critical to engage quickly and constructively with the individual.

Focus initially on coaching the person by providing insights about constant complaining, and how it erodes the working environment. Demonstrate how the behavior affects performance and morale.

Indicate how continuous complaining can damage the individual’s career and showcase positive ways to offer critical input on programs, policies, or activities in the workplace. 

Not every complainer is the same

There are three types of complainers:

1 – Chronic complainers

We all have known a chronic complainer or have been one ourselves. This complainer only sees problems and not solutions.  They tend to focus on how ‘bad’ a situation is regardless of its actual impact or consequence to their life.

They tend to be negative thinkers and have created a pattern of complaining, which some studies have shown may wire the brain to operate negatively. This affects their mental and physical health and impacts those around them. While called a chronic complainer, it does not need to be a constant, permanent condition.  People with this mindset can change, but they will have to choose it, and it will take work.


2 – Venting

A complainer who vents focuses on displaying emotional dissatisfaction.  Their attention is on themselves and how they feel regarding what they deem to be a negative situation.  They are hoping to glean attention from those around them as opposed to finding a real solution to the problem.   When someone provides a resolution, they only see a reason it won’t work.

3 – Instrumental complaining

This is akin to constructive criticism.  This complainer is seeking to solve an issue that has created dissatisfaction.  They will present the problem toward the individuals most likely to be able to solve the problem.

How to Deal with Chronic Complainers

Don’t Try to Convince Them

Sometimes, it’s just best for you both if you don’t try to convince them to be more positive. Not only will it save you from a possible argument or heated debate, but it could be more important to them than you realize.

Sometimes chronic complainers are just outright negative people, but some may be genuinely down on their luck people who need some validating.

When a person has nothing but complaints, they might be struggling with their negative mindset. When you hear them complain, try validating it and then moving them on. Sometimes, they just want to be told than someone understands that they’re struggling.

Whether it’s something petty or more serious, meet them with sympathy. Offer to support them in trying to resolve the matter, then move on the conversation so they can’t dwell on it – for your own sake and theirs.

Bring Their Positivity Back

If you come to realize that this chronic complainer is struggling to find light in the darkness, offer them support. Coach them through it. When they speak of something negatively, ask them why they feel so bothered by it.

Listen to their answers then help them unpack their reactions. Offer them genuine ideas that could help them to feel less negative. Suggest positive alternatives and different points of view that might make them see things differently and more rationally.

Why Complain?

Complaining isn’t all bad.  Occasional venting and expression of negative emotions to a colleague about difficult situations allow us to get our concerns out into the open, and in doing so, lessen possible stress reactions. Repressing our feelings may stop us from naming our problem and getting to the bottom of it. People also complain in order to feel better about themselves. Returning to Peter, perhaps he wanted Lisa’s validation for how unfair or annoying his situation was and to establish some kind of emotional connection.

But complaints can also be used as a way to exercise power and influence perceptions. Especially within organizations, which can be hotbeds of political games, people use complaining in order to get people’s support. On this interpretation, Peter might have been trying to recruit Lisa to his point of view concerning what he thought was wrong with some of the people in their organization.

In many cases, chronic complaining starts early in life, as a means of gaining visibility and establishing rapport in the family. These early experiences can become deeply ingrained patterns of behavior, and in Peter’s case, may have become part of his identity.  This would explain why he reacts poorly to advice because resolving his problem would take away the reason to complain, threatening his sense of self.

Leadership FAQs

Here are some common FAQs in regards to leadership and chronic complainers:

What are some tips for dealing with chronic complainers in a leadership role?

When dealing with chronic complainers, it’s important to set expectations for your employees. Make sure the company’s values are upheld and that employees know what’s being asked of them. It’s also important to observe your employees, reach out to them and ask them to offer their input on the workplace environment. As an employer or company leader, it’s also important to quickly recognize when chronic complainers need to be addressed. This should be done in a timely manner in order to avoid them affecting the rest of the workplace.

How can you foster a positive work environment?

In order to create a positive and uplifting environment at work, it’s important to be a good communicator, an active listener, show recognition, have fun and overall, be an exceptional leader. The more open communication you promote, the more comfortable your employees will feel coming to you about their praises or concerns. It’s also important to have fun in the workplace and to not solely focus on the heavy or strenuous tasks of the day.