How Do You Handle The Whiners?

“Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood or appreciated.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (Journals, 1840)

 In the early part of my career, I spent countless hours ensnarled in the following kind of situation:

A manager would come into my office and start to complain about something. The moment I understood the problem, I’d cut her off (very politely — after telling her that I was touched by her pain) and then offer a quick and effective solution.

Instead of thanking me for my help and praising me for my understanding, she would stop talking, look at me incredulously, and then begin talking again as if I had done nothing more than cleared my throat or farted.

Baffled at her unresponsiveness, I’d interrupt her for the second time and repeat my solution. Again, she’d look at me with disappointment — though this time, the tears would well up in her eyes — and then, for the third time, commence with her story.

Feeling mistreated at this point, I’d stop her for the third time and sternly say something like “Didn’t you hear what I just said?” That was the point at which she would usually start blubbering.

Shattered at having caused her such grief, I’d quickly apologize for “whatever I might have said or done” to make her react so and then spend most of the rest of the afternoon listening (in excruciating detail) to the problems I’d solved three times already.

Years later, thanks to the good work of Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” I realized what these women — yes, they were all women — were doing. It wasn’t what I thought it was — telling me about a problem so that we could solve it. It was telling me about a problem so I could sympathize with them.

These gals weren’t looking for a solution. (They could figure that out for themselves, thank you!) They were looking for a shoulder.

For a while, after reading Tannen, I thought, “Well, OK. I guess I’ve got to learn to be more sympathetic.” And so when these young whiners would come into my office, I’d listen to them — empathetically. They’d go on and on — sometimes, it seemed like days — and I’d nod and say sympathetic things. And then, finally, they’d just get up and leave.

I suppose Adele Lynn and Leadership Strategies would say that I was doing the right thing. (Remember yesterday’s message.) But as the years passed, I began to get the feeling that I was doing something foolish.

I was spending time — countless hours of time — trying to fix emotional problems, something I rarely did with men. More importantly, I realized that what I was involved in (or “enabling,” to use the proper pop-psychology term) was a bizarre manifestation of the entitlement philosophy.

What was entitled here was the right to have one’s thoughts and feelings listened to — as if that were guaranteed by God or the Bill of Rights.

I don’t think people have a right to expect that other people will listen to them. Can you imagine if we applied that principle to selling? (“Damn you! I’m trying to sell you this vacuum cleaner, and you are giving me body language showing that you are not interested!”) It seems to me that if you want people to listen to you, you’ve got to say something to get and maintain their attention.

Usually, that means talking about what they — not you — are interested in. And what should one’s boss be interested in? The work.

The work.

When you listen empathetically to a chronic whiner, you are probably wasting valuable time (since a solution is not what’s sought) and may even be enabling self-destructive behavior.

Yes, I think that complaining about your situation and trying to get comfort by such complaining is self-destructive. And, no, women are not the only ones who do that. Men do it too. (At home, it’s mostly men that whine.)

I realize this must seem unforgivably retrograde and insensitive. I’m thinking of writing a book on the subject: “Thirty Days to Complete Insensitivity.”

What do you do when you are confronted by a chronic complainer?

You can try the tactics I suggested yesterday, but chances are they will get you into trouble. Your hints will be ignored, the “conversation” will continue, and in the end you’ll have wasted the same amount of time — plus you’ll have made the complainer mad at you.

Here’s a better solution: Do nothing.

Yes, do nothing — for as long as it takes for the complainer to tell one full version of his tragic story. Then, the moment he pauses and before he can start in again from the beginning, stand up and walk toward the door.

Nine out of 10 times, the person will stand up and follow you. Put your hand on his shoulder (or her shoulder, if you can do so without getting sued) and say, “I appreciate your situation. Please come back to me with the XYZ report tomorrow.”

What usually will happen is that the person will say nothing and will leave the office dutifully, shocked and bewildered but usually not crying. The next time you see him or her, pre-empt a second attack by asking about the XYZ report. Say something like, “Surely it must be ready by now!”

Keep this up until these people either cure themselves or direct their unhealthy habits elsewhere.