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“I personally think we developed language because of our deep need to complain.” ~Lily Tomlin

Just as sympathy is the cheapest form of approval, complaining is the cheapest form connection.

Why cheap?

Because it’s easy, it’s common, and we see it demonstrated every day, everywhere, in myriad ways.

But sometimes things seem worthy of complaining—natural disasters, politics, loss of life, for example, almost seem to demand at least some complaining.

We can categorize complaining, then, into two categories:

  • Acute
  • Chronic

Here’s an example of ‘acute:’ I call a friend (or coach or colleague) and name up front that I have something that’s bothering me and I want to get it off my chest. Goes like this:

“Hey. Is this a good time? Have you got two minutes? ‘Coz I’ve got this thing that’s pissing me off and I just need someone to listen to me so I can clear it before heading into the next meeting. Not looking for solutions, just your ears.”

They usually say “okay” (I choose carefully.) And then I complain. Once. I always feel better (at least a little bit) and generally am able to generate some clarity as to why I was upset in the first place.

The second category falls under the heading of ‘chronic.’ THIS is the form of complaining that poisons you, your listeners and your life. That’s a big statement, and here’s what I know after decades doing this work: Those that complain chronically, about anything, out loud, are complaining chronically, about everything, silently.

Dealing with complainers

And if you’re stuck working with a complainer, don’t jump on their bandwagon and agree, or simply try to ignore them. Give this a shot instead:

  • Acknowledge their pain point (whatever it is)
  • Link to a common experience
  • Offer hope for a better outcome next time

Example: Co-worker takes public transport to work each day. She complains about it chronically, in overt and oblique ways. This particular day she strides in the office late, blaming the subway malfunction and resulting scheduling delays. Here’s what I’m suggesting might sound like (depending on the person/situation/contextual history):

“Oh, bummer. I find that frustrating, too. Couple of weeks ago a train breakdown caused me to miss an important commitment. Most inconvenient. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often, and I’ve found I now leave the house 15 minutes earlier, because I’m so enjoying not feeling rushed in the morning.”

Complainers are looking for ways to feel:

  • Acknowledged
  • Validated
  • Included

The simple couple of sentences above accomplish all three. It might not stop the person from complaining chronically, but you will have handled this one acute complaint.


Complaining on the outside reflects a way of seeing and interpreting the world on the inside.

Keep complaining and you’ll find even more about which to complain; energy flows where your attention goes.

Cut complaining out of your daily diet and you’ll start noticing there are better, more effective (and fun) ways to connect to others, not to mention to yourself; it’s a powerful thing to feel connected to yourself.

Which is all complainers really want in the first place, to feel connected…to something.

“Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining – it bores everybody else, does you no good, and doesn’t solve any problems.” ~Zig Ziglar


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