How to deal with co-workers who constantly complain

Whether it’s in the teacher’s lounge, staff meetings, or just passing one another in the hallway, even a short conversation with a negative teacher can be totally draining. Everyone complains from time to time, of course. But what about those colleagues who never have anything positive to say and seem determined to tear everyone else down? Here are 11 tips to help you head off chronically complaining coworkers at the pass:

Tips for teachers on dealing with negative coworkers

Seek out the positive, fun people in the room and sit near them. If the main conversation devolves into something you don’t want to listen to, you can just strike up a quiet discussion with the person next to you. If there aren’t any positive people in the group, sit next to the quiet ones who won’t be whispering snide comments to you.

Set the tone by starting the conversation topic yourself. Don’t wait for a complainer to direct the flow of the discussion. As soon as a few people in the group are gathered, dive right into something positive and direct your comment or question to someone in the room who generally enjoys his or her job. Ask, “Hey, how did it go with that new activity you tried this morning?” or “One of my kids said the funniest thing during math today, listen to this…” or “I saw the coolest thing on Pinterest, I think we should try it!”

Find topics beyond work that you have in common. Talking about outside interests creates a strong bond among co-workers. Share your personal lives with one another so that you can ask about families, hobbies, travels, etc. and not have to revert to a cliched, “So, did you get that stupid email from the principal?” or “You won’t believe what this kid did today” as a conversation opener. If your co-workers don’t want to share anything, get the ball rolling yourself by talking about something innocuous, like local restaurants you like (“Has anyone ever been to __? I just tried it last week and it was really good.”)

If you don’t have anything in common, ask the most positive (or most talkative) person in the group a question. The key here is to get someone chattering on about something that no complainer can dissuade them from. If one of your co-workers is about to have a baby, is planning a wedding, or has another exciting event happening, inquire about that. Everyone loves weddings and babies, after all. Or, ask one of the talkative teachers about what her grandkids have been up to. It might not be the most thrilling conversational topic, but it’s better than being subjected to a rant about how the entire educational system is headed down the toilet.

Be blunt. I used to go out for happy hour with a group of teachers whom I loved dearly, but who never seemed to run out of things to complain about. It was mind-boggling–we were done with school for the weekend, we were out at a restaurant having a nice meal–who really wants to hear about the fit one of your students threw for the millionth time? One day, I  finally just said, “I need a break from talking about school and I don’t want to complain anymore, it’s making me miserable. Can we get all the school-related talk done now and then change the subject?” My friends were actually relieved to have some boundaries placed on the conversation, and it became our tradition after that to discuss the rumors and complain for only the first fifteen minutes or so. At that point, someone would invariably say, “Okay, are we done? No more school talk now!” It became like a game to catch each other accidentally talking about work and tease each other about having to foot the bill for the table if too many slips were made.

Refuse to comment on complaints. Smile and nod, smile and nod, then change the subject. You can also respond to complaints with something positive: each time someone tells a story about an irate parent or out-of-control child, share something sweet, funny, or inspiring that happened to you. This is very annoying behavior to those who are chronic complainers because it’s no fun to complain alone. So, if you’re consistent with it, they’ll quickly figure out that it’s a waste of time to use you as their sounding board and they’ll go elsewhere.

Don’t attempt to validate the complaints or prove them wrong. In team meetings, I used to try to make the complainers feel heard and acknowledge their concerns. However, it can be counterproductive to validate the opinions of those who are determined to point out everything wrong with a situation and why an idea will never work. I’ve found it’s better to let them say their piece and then continue on with the meeting. If you’re explaining a new schedule and the complainer says, “Well! That’s going to make it impossible for me to teach all 3 reading groups now!” just make eye contact with them so they know you heard them, and continue explaining how the schedule will be implemented. Or say, “This will be a challenge, yes. So let’s keep talking about how we can make this work.” There’s nothing you can say to convince the Debbie Downer types that the new system will be effective (especially when you have doubts about it yourself), so don’t waste your energy with the back-and-forth. Always keep moving the conversation forward.

Keep the interactions as brief as possible. Don’t spend a minute longer with the complainers than you have to. And use the time crunch teachers are under as an advantage. In casual situations, excuse yourself by saying, “I gotta get going to make these copies before the kids come back! See you later!” In grade level meetings, stop the complaining by saying, “Since have about fifteen minutes left, maybe we should finish planning this out and then when we’re done, we can go back and look at some of these issues that might create a problem.” (If your meetings are anything like mine, there won’t be any time at the end.)

Remember that complaints and rude comments are not personal. They’re more of a reflection on the person who is saying them than the recipient. So if a colleague criticizes something about your teaching or tries to make you feel inferior, let it slide off your back. Tell yourself, This is his/her problem, and it’s not about me. I refuse to allow someone who dislikes their job to make me dislike mine, too. I’m not permitting those rude comments to take up anymore space in my mind. I’m dismissing them, and I’m replacing them now with thoughts about something that worked well in my classroom today.

Stop thinking about the complainer when you’re not around him or her. It’s very tempting to make jokes about the Debbie Downers in your school, anticipate their response to change (“Oh, no, I can only imagine what she’s going to say about this!”), and generally give them more consideration than they deserve. Don’t allow the complainers in your school to determine how things are done. Crowd out their negative energy by consistently talking about the good things that are happening and staying focused on your goals.

Build a community of people who inspire and uplift you.  A good support system starts by finding just one positive person in your school that you can seek out after a hard day. You can also create a Personal Learning Community (PLC) with teachers on social media and find support there. (Last month, I started the Facebook group Encouraging Teachers for this very purpose–we’d love to have you join us .) It’s really important to have other educators you can go to for advice without worrying that they’ll make you feel more discouraged than when the conversation started, so make it a priority to find like-minded teachers who can prevent you from complaining and help you problem-solve constructively.

How do you handle chronic complainers and Negative Nellies at your school?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mo September 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Great advice that applies to life’s complainers in general!

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2 Nancy Ohmart September 23, 2013 at 8:34 pm

I am not a negative Nancy, poor choice of a pun! I constantly encourage my students and when teachers desire to talk about each other, I and another teacher begin to talk about what glorious victories The Lord gave a specific student (or ourselves).

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3 Angela Watson September 25, 2013 at 11:30 am

I changed it to Negative Nellie! Anyone whose name is Nellie…my apologies in advance. 😉

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4 Heidi Butkus September 23, 2013 at 11:19 pm

This was a great post! You left one option out, though. When all else fails, just don’t GO in the staff room, if you can help it! I had to do this for the first few years teaching at a certain school, where there were so many complainers in the staff lounge that I simply couldn’t stand to be there at all. I started taking my lunch to the local park. It was so much more pleasant! I would have wished for a better situation and companionship, but when all else fails…
Heidi

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5 Angela Watson September 25, 2013 at 11:29 am

I rarely ate in the staff room, either, Heidi. I agree it’s better to eat alone than with people who will drag you down. I know many teachers who enjoy being there an just seek out the positive people in the room. For me, the crowd changed every year depending on our lunch time: some years it was a fun group and I ate with them, and sometimes it was a group of people that pulled me down. During the “bad” years, I’d eat with one other colleague in my room.

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6 Anna September 23, 2013 at 11:54 pm

I was starting to deal with depression due to all the negativity at work. So I told my two main coworkers: I am getting depressed. I need to keep the negativity to a minimum, so unless it is something I need to know, please let’s not talk about it.” It’s cut the complaining down quite a bit!

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7 Angela Watson September 25, 2013 at 11:27 am

That’s great, Anna! I think that sometimes people are waiting for someone to speak up. I was a big complainer for a long time, and I wish someone had just leveled with me the way you did with your colleagues.

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8 Nicole September 24, 2013 at 3:54 am

Great ideas! I will use them, starting with my first team meeting on Wednesday! :)

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9 Jeannie September 24, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Great advice!! :-)

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10 margd September 24, 2013 at 6:41 pm

What a wise post – thank you.

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11 Ramesh September 24, 2013 at 10:29 pm

ya its motivated to deal with co-worker with positive manner.thanks

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12 Catherine @readingtothecore September 25, 2013 at 5:01 am

Lots of great advice! Thanks for sharing.

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13 Tom Panarese September 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Great advice, although I’d add that you shouldn’t confuse simple venting or letting off some steam with negativity. The teachers lounge at lunchtime, the parking lot after work, or happy hour are usually the only times that my colleagues and I can commiserate with one another and very often that includes letting out frustration about our day or particular students or anything else because in many cases, we don’t want to take it home with us.

Complainers and the negative people are a whole other sort — they never seem to get over anything and will go as far as to be doom and gloom about just about everything from the start.

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14 Angela Watson September 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

I agree, Tom, thanks for that. Someone on Facebook mentioned that there is a difference between saying something negative and complaining, and that’s an excellent point, too. Occasional commiseration and speaking up about things that are not right can be productive. The chronic complainers, as you pointed out, are a totally different case, and that’s the type of person I had in mind for this article.

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15 Steve November 4, 2014 at 10:46 pm

PERFECT and appropriate advice for all the Negative Nancys at my school! A few co-workers are pulling down the ENTIRE staff. They think it’s all about them. We’re there for the kids.

Is it appropriate to print out this article and put it in everyone’s mailbox? =) (i’d probably get complaints!!)

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16 Jen May 31, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I was thinking about doing the same thing… anonymously!

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17 Fearghal May 2, 2015 at 1:42 pm

Great post…this will be a real help for those teachers who are positive but get sucked into the staffroom negativity.

I was attracted to the blogging, and then twitter, world initially as this provided a community of positive teachers who were keen to discuss learning and teaching. This has since grown into the online community of teachers Pedagoo and we would welcome anyone who likes this post to join in at Pedagoo.org

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18 Denise June 5, 2015 at 6:59 am

It is a struggle to be around people with that type of attitude – you really have to put your armor on as if you were going into battle to protect yourself from those harsh words. You have to try hard and have the mindset I’m not going to let that be me. I am so glad my daughter sent this pin to me – this is the exact thing I’ve been struggling with.
Happy Summer!!!

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19 Angela Watson June 6, 2015 at 9:36 am

I’m so glad it was helpful for you, Denise! You are so right about putting on your armor and take this seriously. It IS a battle, and many people don’t even realize it and never prepare themselves for it ahead of time.

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20 Leslie August 5, 2015 at 12:47 pm

All too often I find myself being one of the complainers. These are great tips for me to get out off of the negativity train!

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21 Grullo girl February 13, 2016 at 8:08 am

I recently switched jobs and my worst fear has come true-I work in an office surrounded by negativity and nastiness. To the point yesterday when my husband sent me flowers she sat at her desk and made rude faces. Because she was jealous. No one wants to deal with her and her negativity is toxic and wearing on me. I have already tried to put my notice in to the person who recruited me for the job and they wouldn’t let me quit and had her manager speak to her. Which was a win because she wouldn’t talk to me for two days and was on her best behavior for about three weeks. But as I expected the monster is rearing its ugly head again. I don’t want to get anyone fired, and I realize that would be on her and not me, but I am still trying to find a way to deal with it. Have even spoke to a counselor on trying to find a way to deal with it. Any suggestions?

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