I had an email exchange recently with a client asking about how to deal with a person who complains a lot and creates a negative atmosphere in her office. I thought it could be useful to share her question and my response with a broader audience:
(The names of people involved have been removed or changed.)
My name is Maria, I participated in your workshop yesterday. It was very interesting to listen to your presentation on ‘How to Deal with Difficult People’. However, I didn’t get the opportunity to ask you about how to deal with people who always complain about everything and criticize everything. Let me explain the situation: we are four people in the office and one is always complaining about the country, language, and Swiss people especially…I try to ignore this person but sometimes it is difficult as the office is small. I assume this person has had bad experiences with Swiss people and has a negative feeling. The way this person talks about everything regarding Switzerland is very annoying and at the end of the day I’m so tired. I’m feeling more distant from the others as well. But I want to learn how not to get affected by this negative atmosphere. What should I do? Thank you very much and have a nice weekend.
As a coach, my first instinct would be to coach on the impact of this situation, rather than give advice without knowing more about the context. I would ask about the effect this is having and find out where the feeling of distance is coming from.
We didn’t have the chance for coaching at that moment, so I would do my best to give some tips that may help: It sounds like this person has a blind spot. If you believe that deep down this person has good intentions and you would like to strengthen your relationship with him/her, you might want to give feedback to this person. There are many different feedback models, but in this case I recommend the feedback model of:
Of course, feedback is only effective and worth the effort if the person is open to hearing it, so you may need to ask this person, “Would you be open to some feedback?” Make sure you both have enough time and a place where you are not going to be disturbed.
Step 1 of the feedback model I mentioned requires you to describe the behavior that you have noticed in an objective way before you place any judgment on the behavior. This is when you list concrete examples of the kind of complaints you have heard from this person. As much as possible, you should use their exact words. Use no interpretation and no judgment; just describe the behavior like the play-back of a video camera. If you do this in a completely objective and accurate manner, the person is more likely to acknowledge what you are saying and to stay open to hear the impact that their behavior is having on you.
E.g., “Almost every time we chat, you say one or two negative things about Swiss people. For example yesterday, you said ‘The Swiss are so slow and closed-minded.’”
Step 2. Once the person has acknowledged the observation you have made about his/her behavior, only then is it time to let them know the impact it has on you.
E.g., “The impact that it has is that you appear as a negative person, even if you aren’t really.” Or, if you are feeling more courageous; “The impact that it has on me is that my energy and mood are lower after conversations with you and I find myself avoiding conversations with you.”.
Step 3: Pause. Give him/her a moment to let sink in what you just said. Let the person ask questions if they need clarification. Hopefully, they won’t go into defensive mode by denying or explaining themselves.
Step 4: Provide a suggestion. You do not have to be the master of giving the perfect suggestion, but just give them something to try out. They may otherwise be clueless about how to change their behavior.
E.g., “It would be great if you kept negative comments about the Swiss to yourself while at work.”
I hope this is helpful!