E14: How to Deal With Constant Complainers

I Hear You
I Hear You
E14: How to Deal With Constant Complainers

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Forgive typos and odd grammatical mistakes—this was transcribed using the magic of AI, and while it’s insanely awesome, it’s not perfect.

[00:00:00] On today’s episode of the I Hear You podcast, we are addressing a question I’ve received from a handful of readers and listeners, and that’s this: How do I handle certain relationships where I feel like the other person is constantly complaining? The question most often comes up when talking about validation, because we often feel like validation only encourages the complaining and ends up draining our energy, connection and happiness. So today we’ll address these concerns head on, because I can tell you right now that the solution is actually quite simple and we’ll give you actionable tools and sample dialog even to help you effectively validate and support these people in your life without enabling them or sacrificing your own happiness. Let’s dive in.

Do I really need to just listen to people complain all the time?

[00:01:06] So what do you do when you’re in the situation where you want to support the person, maybe you have supported them, maybe you’ve even gotten very good at validating them. You recognize that emotions that they’re sharing. Show them that you offer that justification for it. You withhold your advice and then you offer it at the right time. You follow the four step validation method, as I’ve outlined in my book or on my other podcast episodes or on my Web site. And yet this person keeps coming back for more and it’s starting to get to a point where no matter what you say, you realize they’re probably going to continue to complain to you. Maybe at first it’s flattering because you recognize that you’re one of few, if any other people that they can confide in. But then after a while, you realize this is a pattern and you really don’t want to always be the complaint box. Do you really have to just listen to people all day long and take their crap?

[00:01:59] Well, the short answer is no. You absolutely do not. And this is where we start combining all of the principles we’ve been talking about on this show. Quite honestly, this is where the show gets fun because this is where we use our understanding of personal responsibility and codependency to see the truth in this situation. This is where we’re going to use validation and empowering language to create a respectful conversation with this person. And this is where we’re going to use boundaries to protect our own happiness and encourage the other person to take responsibility for theirs.

[00:02:36] So I hope you can start to see now why I spent so much time on all these other powerful principles and why those are the first episodes in this podcast, because as we get into dealing with these questions and exploring further, real life scenarios and case studies and so forth, we have to have a working understanding of all of those other principles to be able to effectively manage these. And ultimately, as is the goal of this entire podcast, to connect better with others, to connect better with ourselves. A lot of us struggle simply with taking care of ourselves, with respecting ourselves. So today is the first of many instances where we start putting the pieces together and how we use all of these tools in our toolkit now to improve our connection and to improve our relationships.

Does Validation Help or Hurt?

[00:03:26] So rather than speak in hypotheticals today, I’d like to take a moment to read an email I received from a reader, and I share this with permission, of course. This reader writes, Michael, first of all, thank you for taking the time to read a book about your superpower, validation. It has been my kryptonite for a very long time. I’m not very good at empathy and not very good at validation unless I feel something needs to be validated. I have a bachelors degree in psychology and I’ve read many self-help books. I’m happy 90% of the time and love my life, but I do not communicate well with my spouse because of my lack of validation. I have known I need to work on this for years. I finally bought your book to try to start my journey. Can I share with you my struggle? I have two issues with validation. First, I hate validating something I don’t feel deserves validation. Let’s say hypothetically, that someone’s spouse spends the majority of their conversations complaining about how the kids ruin their day and they are overwhelmed and stressed and tired and don’t feel good. Years ago, this couple discussed that the spouse needed to make sure they were taking time to care for themselves. Nutrition, exercise, breaks from the kids, boundaries around social media needed to be put in place for them to feel better.

[00:04:42] And yet, years later, this person continues still the same complaining, but they haven’t taken all the steps that they know they need to take to feel better. So when they share their feelings, I do not validate them. I don’t even look at them because I don’t want them to feel the anger in my eyes. I know they know what they need to do to fix it. And the fact that they aren’t doing is making my life worse. That makes me feel frustrated, not supportive. if I just continue to validate, I feel I am enabling them to continue not taking action. Do you have any light to shine here? And then they say, this one probably just needs marriage counseling. The second question, though, that they bring up here. As they say, I fear that if I validate my spouse’s feelings, I will become their venting box. And again, you see now why this ties into our conversation today. They go on in the email and say, I make it a point to not vent to my spouse or anyone else for that matter, except right now to you apparently, because I don’t believe it’s their job to listen to my negativity so I can feel better. I honestly fear a life coming home from work to listen to all the things that went wrong in my spouse’s day, how the kids did this or that and then say, Oh, I’m so sorry, that sounds so hard. And then rinse and repeat. Most days of the week, I want our interactions to be positive, not negative. Am I wrong in thinking that it shouldn’t be my job to listen to their or anyone else’s negativity just so they can feel better? Sincerely, a grateful reader.

[00:06:09] Now, that’s a bit of a long email, but I share in its entirety with the hopes that some of you will relate to it. I know because I’ve heard from other readers and listeners that this is not the only person struggling with this and feeling like, gosh, I don’t want to validate my spouse, or my partner, or my parent, or my sibling, or my coworker, because I feel like if I do, they just keep coming back for more and they’re not changing anything.

How to Handle Someone Who’s Constantly Complaining 

1. Validate the Emotion

[00:06:33] And so that’s the first thing that I want to address here is the question of do I validate somebody if I don’t agree with what they’re saying? Now, I’m not going to spend too much time here because again, we’ve already talked about this in prior episodes and it’s in my book. The short answer is yes, you absolutely can validate them without agreeing. So the first suggestion I had to this reader was, rather than judging whether or not the issue is deserving of validation.

[00:07:04] Ask yourself whether your spouse deserves validation. Do they deserve to feel heard and understood? Or would you like them to feel that way? I would expect the answer here to be yes, because we love those people, at least I hope. If you’re even wrestling with this, chances are good it’s because you’re in a relationship with someone you do care about and you’re just not sure if this is going to help them. So the beautiful thing about validation here is that you are validating any emotion, you’re validating an experience. You’re not necessarily saying, you are right. You’re not necessarily agreeing with how they’re seeing things. And the reason this is so important in today’s topic and in today’s discussion is that if somebody is constantly complaining, they are looking for validation. And if they have a habit of this, there’s something more we need to do in addition to just validating. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still validate. And why? Why is that? Why would we bother validating somebody if we do it over and over? Well, the main reason here is that if we just give them a device, if the next time they come to us, we don’t validate them at all. Instead, we say, you always do this, you’ve got to stop. This isn’t helping anything. What are they gonna do?

[00:08:24] Chances are good they’re going to get defensive. Right? Chances are good they’re going to feel hurt, or they’re going to push back, or they’re going to retreat. You know everyone’s going to respond slightly differently. But 9 times out of 10, they’re not going to take it well. Now, that’s not your fault. Again, that’s their stuff. However, our aim here is to help them improve. Our aim here is to help them change or invite them to change.

[00:08:49] Validation creates a safe space where if they feel heard, then they’re more likely to hear and listen to us. So I will say this. In situations like this, what’s an ongoing pattern, despite you offering a lot of validation? There are generally some deeper issues, emotional issues at play here that that person is not currently willing to look at or address. Now, there’s nothing against this other person. We all have those. However, in the instance of this person who wrote in, their spouses’s busy day isn’t the immediate issue. The immediate issue is something deeper. And I say that because when this person pushed back and offered to give them space or time or to take some of the chores off their shoulders, they refused to take him up on it. They said, no, no, it’s fine. I just do this and that. But I don’t feel like it’s ever going to change. And they kept going in that cycle.

[00:09:45] So there are going to be certain instances where we can offer to help out of a sincere place of wanting to help. And they take us up on that and they’re grateful and that does fix the issue. Great. Today we’re talking about instances where that doesn’t happen. So the goal in these situations is for both of you to figure out what the underlying concern is. So if I’m in this person’s shoes, I would try to find a moment when I’m feeling centered and calm, meaning not angry at my spouse or stressed or tired and have a casual conversation with them to try to better understand what’s going on.

For Example

[00:10:18] So that might sound something like the following. Hey, can I share something with you? I know you have a lot on your plate and I feel badly because I know I’m not very validating when you vent to me. I love you and I want to be more validating. And I have such a hard time doing so because I’m worried that if I do validate you, it’ll make it easier for you to just stay where you are and not make the changes that will help. I’m not quite sure how to support you because I don’t feel like you’re making self care a priority. Could you help me understand what’s preventing you from taking time for yourself like we discussed a couple of years ago? Now, that’s admittedly a bit wordy, you know, as I said out loud, but that type of a conversation is quite non-threatening.

[00:11:03] And if we dissect it a little bit, you’ll see a lot of the prior principals that we’ve talked about there. So you first you validate them by saying, I know you have a lot on your plate and I feel badly because I know I’m not very validating when you vent to me. That validates two things that they’re dealing with. The first, they have a lot on their plate and the second, acknowledging that you haven’t been very validating. That helps them feel heard, helps them feel seen. And hopefully it starts the conversation in a safe space. Then you use the word “and” instead of “butt” to transition into what’s bothering you, you say, and I’m having a hard time because I’m worried that if I validate you, it’ll keep enabling you. Then the final thing here is that you’re asking them for insight. You’re not jumping to conclusions here, you’re recognizing that there’s probably something going on that you don’t understand and you’re inviting them to elaborate. So you say, could you help me understand what’s preventing you from from doing what we talked about a couple of years ago? Now, again, chances are good that here they’ll probably just go through all of the same excuses.

[00:12:13] I don’t have time, the kids won’t just settle down, so on and so forth. Whatever they say, validate it. You’re not going to want to because you’ve heard these same excuses over and over. But it’s important that you do here. So you might say, for example, yes, it’s tough taking time for yourself when you feel like you’re already underwater, especially with everything the kids have going on right now.

2. Ask What They’re Going to Do About It

[00:12:40] So, again, you validate what they just expressed and you again remind them that this is a safe space. And then after you validate, continue to ask discovery questions. Now, of course, you don’t want to feel like an interrogation or like you’re pressuring them to do what you want. You’re just wanting to explore the issue before both of you. It’s trying to adopt this, let’s look at it together, side by side, mentality here. Now, at this stage is where I strongly recommend you ask the question, “what are you going to do?” Or, “what are you going to do about it?” This is powerful. This to me is one of the two secret sauces, if you will, when dealing with a chronic complainer. The first is validating to create that safe space, and then the second is to respectfully ask what they’re gonna do about it. This is a powerful question because it invites the other person to take ownership and responsibility and it prevents endless cycles of complaining.

[00:13:39] So assuming you are sharing the load in the family or, you know, assuming you’re not totally slacking off and there isn’t stuff that you need to own up to, this is a great way to remind the other person that it’s their responsibility to speak up for what they need. So to directly answer the question, do I just validate constantly? No, that doesn’t mean you don’t validate, right? You follow me? All that means is validation alone isn’t the answer. You validate them first and then you put it back on them. You ask them what they’re going to do about it and if for whatever reason, they just don’t give you any answer, or they say there’s nothing I can do and I’m stuck here. Then that’s an opportunity for you to think and say, OK, do I want to give them advice? I don’t want to give them feedback. If the answer is yes and you’ve already validated them, then you can offer that. You can ask if they want to. You might say, well, I do have a few suggestions. Do you mind if I share? Or, you might say, do you want to hear my thoughts on it? Do you want to hear my side of the story? Whatever it is, and then you hope that they’re open to it, they will at least be more open to it now that you’ve asked if they want to hear it, than they would if you just offered it unsolicited verbiage.

[00:14:53]  So to sum up this first point here, the next time this person comes back to you and is complaining, try the following. It’s really three steps, I’ve said two, but really it’s three because the first step is to listen empathically. Then, of course, the second is to validate the emotion. And the third is to ask them what they’re going to do about it. And this could all happen in 60 seconds. You know, it doesn’t have to be this long, complicated conversation. You might just say, oh, it’s tough, it seems like this is always the issue right? What are you gonna do about it now? That’s the first step. The first line of defense, you might say, or the first recommendation that I have for dealing with people who you might consider a chronic complainer.

You May Also Need to Set Boundaries

[00:15:35] Now if this person is in the habit of complaining, it’s likely that you’re still going to have moments where you simply aren’t up for it. You don’t even want to have a conversation that I just laid out just a moment ago, and that’s 100% OK. And that takes me to point number two, which is setting boundaries to protect your own space.

[00:15:57] Now, there are a million different ways you could do this. And what boundaries you’ve set are going to be up to you. For example, here are a few you might you might try. You might say something like, I’m sorry, I’m not really in a great place to talk about this right now. I want to help and support you but I’m pretty worn out at the moment, can we chat a bit later? Or you might say, I’m finding that after a long day of work, I really want to unwind and relax or just kind of talk more about positive topics, so I get pretty stressed out when you start talking about all the day’s problems as soon as I get home. How would you feel about setting a boundary that we keep dinner conversations positive and save the venting for later on in the evening? Or you could say, hey, we’ve talked a lot about this and I’m not quite certain how to help. I want to help, yet I feel like I’ve just become a complete receiver and it’s starting to get quite draining, to be honest. Do you have any solutions in mind? Any specific way I can help? Because again, I care about you and I want to be here, I’m wrestling with how to balance this. Now again. Adapt those, tweak them. They have to be your own right? Some of those are longer, some of those are gonna use things that you’re like, I wouldn’t say it that way, that’s weird. Just giving you some examples here.

Vulnerability Is Key

[00:17:13] At the end of the day, the key thing there is to be vulnerable with this other person and to tell them how their complaining is affecting you. And you can do it in a respectful way. My aim in those other examples has been to illustrate that, to just say, listen, I care about you and I want to help you and I’m wrestling with how to do so because I feel that this is draining. What do you think? How can we do this? Now, I will say that depending on the emotional health of the other person, they might take that well and they might appreciate it and they might talk with you about it or they might take it and get offended. They might interpret your boundary as severing the friendship and saying you want nothing to do with me. How dare you? I thought you were my friend. Fine. I’ll go complain to someone else. And you can’t control that. That’s unfortunate if they show up that way. You can either then decide to let them go, well, you can’t force them to stay, but maybe this isn’t a friendship that you really want to keep around. And setting this boundary and then not respecting it is best for both of you.

[00:18:24] You know, and then just go you go their separate ways. Or maybe this is a family member, maybe this is your spouse, and in the moment they choose to get offended and they choose to take it personally and they go into themselves or they leave. Hopefully they will come around. Hopefully they will recognize that you were just sharing your own opinion, your own experience. What’s most important here is that you can’t control what they do or how they respond.

[00:18:51] What you can control is your own sticking up for yourself, your own speaking your mind, and what you’re doing here is again, going back to our very first and second episodes is you are taking responsibility for your own happiness. It may have been very kind for you to keep listening to this person the first and second and third and tenth times. And maybe you were able to hold it sincerely and lovingly. If you’re no longer able to do that, you are not doing them a service. You were not being kind to them because now you’re starting to resent that person every time they come to you. And they can feel it. They can sense it at a certain level or another. And again, the other reason that you might not be helping them, in fact you might be doing them a disservice, is if they really do need to just snap out of it.

[00:19:38] If they really are sitting in that victim role and they’re just looking for you or somebody else to rescue them, it is a gift to call them out on it. It is a gift to basically extend your hand, your arm and say, you can get out of this if you want. I can help you, or there are other resources, there are professionals, there are books, there are solutions to the problem, if you want them. And if they choose not to take that outstretched arm, if they choose not to take you up on that, then it really probably is in your best interest to distance yourself. It probably is in your best interest to put some boundaries in place and say, I love you and I’m gonna love you at a distance. I care about you and I am no longer going to listen to this.

[00:20:24] So obviously, you have to do that in truth. Obviously, you want to make sure that you’ve looked inside yourself and you wanna make sure that you’re not just dismissing this person, but there are a lot of instances where that is the right thing to do. It is the healthy thing to do, for you and for the other person is set that boundary.

Listen, Validate, Take Action

[00:20:42] So to tie this whole topic and this whole conversation together, if somebody is constantly complaining and you’ve already validated them and they’re not changing, you can approach it one of two ways. Or you can use both of these things together. Listening to them again, validating them again and then asking what they’re going to do about it. If they are not willing to change, if you can tell that they’re going to stay in this victim mindset, then you can set a boundary and you can tell them what you are and aren’t OK with. And you can offer advice, you can offer feedback. And if they choose not to take it, it is not rude to distance yourself. It is not rude to set a boundary in place. And it is very empowering. And more often than not, you will be surprised at how eventually that person sees it as a gift. They might not see it in the moment, they might not see it weeks, months or even years down the line. But I can tell you, I have seen from personal experience numerous people who have called their loved ones out after validating, but they’ve called them out, their loved one got all angry at them and accused them and their loved ones stayed in drama. They sat in the victim role and now made you the persecutor and said, I can’t believe you would do that. And their relationship did sour for a long time, and eventually they came around. Again, on numerous occasions I’ve had people say, well, thank you for setting that boundary. Thank you for calling me out, I don’t know what was happening. I just got so wrapped up in my mind and I didn’t see it. So thank you for having the courage to say something.

What About You?

[00:22:24] Now, before we wrap up here, I want to take this a slightly different direction for the last few minutes of the episode today. I imagine this has resonated with a lot of you. I imagine that as I read through that e-mail, several of you thought, gee, yeah, that’s tough or that’s exactly what I’m dealing with, what do I do? Hopefully you can now see that you can listen, validate and support the other person without giving up your own sanity, comfort and happiness.

[00:22:53] Now, I’d like to invite you to turn inward for a moment and ask yourself the following question. Could someone be thinking this about me? Is there something I regularly complain about that I have the power to change? It’s an interesting question, right?

[00:23:13] I know that I have at least been able to identify that I complain quite often to my wife and others about how stressed I am, about work and about all of these other projects that I’m working on. And it’s difficult because I want to be vulnerable and I want to be able to confide in people and I get that validation. And it is helpful. So it’s healthy to a certain extent to vent and to complain and to be vulnerable with people, as we’ve already talked in previous episodes.

[00:23:41] There is a line that can be crossed and I know that I have crossed that from time to time. And as much as we hope that the entire world understands these principles of personal responsibility and codependency in the drama triangle and boundaries and that they can hold us accountable, the reality is very few do. And so, it becomes quite valuable when we can look inside ourselves and help them out a little bit, then say, you know what? This is probably getting draining for them and I don’t want that for them, so I’m going to handle this differently. And the solution to when we are the complainers is the same solution when somebody else is the complainer it’s asking those same two questions or it’s those same two points, validating the emotion and then asking what we’re going to do about it.

An Invitation

So that’s what leads me to my invitation today. And it’s a simple one.

[00:24:36] It’s two part, first, if you’re resenting somebody because they’re always complaining to you and they’re always venting, try those two simple steps that we just discussed on this episode to validate their emotion and ask what they’re going to do about it. And if that doesn’t work, look at setting some boundaries with them and being direct with them.

[00:24:57] And then part two, if you’ve identified something that you have a habit of complaining about, try the same two simple steps, validate your emotion and ask yourself what you are going to do about it. And that, my friends, is where we wrap up today’s episode. Again, I’m excited about this and future episodes because we are transitioning from the basics on into more detailed application. So if you haven’t yet listened to earlier episodes, I encourage you to do so now. They provide an essential foundation for this and future episodes and they will become some of your most valuable tools for creating a happier, healthier, more connected life. I’ll see you next week.

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2 thoughts on “E14: How to Deal With Constant Complainers”

  1. I just listened to this episode and the concern I have is in responding to this person’s email I never once heard you ask the question of this person of did you properly validate. The listener said they had given a list of solutions to the person so could part of this be the spouse wasn’t truly validated???

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