In this episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast, we’re talking strategies for dealing with complainers at work so negative colleagues don’t impact your enthusiasm for the job.
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.
Obviously, everyone complains occasionally. No one is going to be positive all the time, and that’s not even the goal. It is also not a negative thing to talk about problems, discuss solutions, and speak up about things that are not right.
This episode is about constant complaining or venting: Just continually talking about everything that’s wrong in order to try to make yourself feel better. If you’ve followed my work for a while or read my book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, you already know I’m not a huge fan of venting. For most of us, it is extremely hard to vent in a way that is healthy. Most of us end up replaying and reliving all the worst moments of the day at lunch, and then after school, and then with your friend on the phone in the evening, and then with your partner over dinner … and each time, the person we’re venting to shares all of THEIR negative experiences, too, and at the end of the day, you’ve focused entirely too much energy on things that are depressing.
You’ve dredged up all those negative emotions all over again and created the stress reaction in your body again each time you talked about it. I think, frankly, that far too much unhealthy complaining happens under the guise of venting. So even though I’m sure you chose to listen to this episode thinking about someone ELSE who is the complainer, it doesn’t hurt to also do some self-reflection here about how you might be giving coworkers an open door to complain through your mutual “venting” sessions.
Ultimately, though, what we’re talking about here in this episode is dealing with people who are nonstop, chronic complainers. These are the folks who rarely if ever are looking for solutions, and they will likely shoot down any ideas you offer because they’re just wanting to complain. These are the people who look for the negative in anything and always point out why something won’t work. They can have five good things happen to them but will only focus on and talk about the one bad thing. They can take the most uplifting anecdote someone else shares and find something upsetting or de-energizing to share in response.
I’m going to share 12 ways you can head off chronically complaining coworkers at the pass.
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1) Seek out the positive, fun people in the room and sit near them.
Choose your seat in staff or other large group meetings carefully. Then 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.
2) 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… .”
3) Find topics beyond work that you have in common.
Talking about outside interests creates a strong bond among co-workers. Even if you are a private person like I am, it’s worth choosing at least one area of your personal life that you are willing to share with your colleagues. That way you can ask about families, hobbies, travels, etc. and not have to revert to a cliched, “So, did you see that stupid email?” or “You won’t believe what this kid did today” as a conversation opener.
If your co-workers don’t want to share anything from their lives, 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.”).
4) 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. 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 society is headed down the toilet and teaching has become an impossible job.
5) Refuse to comment on complaints.
When your colleague starts ranting, nod an acknowledgment, 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 a very annoying behavior to those who are constant 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 to vent.
6) Don’t attempt to validate the complaints.
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 three 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 constant complainers that a new system will be effective (especially if you have doubts about it yourself), so don’t waste your energy with the back-and-forth. Always keep moving the conversation forward.
Quick side note: Do not validate your colleagues who say derogatory things about the kids and families you serve. The people pleasing part of you might want to nod and affirm, but you don’t want to send the signal that it’s okay for your coworker to have biases, low expectations, stereotypes, and so on. People say things like, “These kids have no social skills, their parents taught them nothing,” because they expect other people to agree.
You can make it NOT socially acceptable to say things like that within your school culture. That can be done through an honest conversation in some instances, but in others, when it’s not worth the time and energy to go there, just give that colleague a look — that side eye, where it’s clear you’re thinking, Um, really? I don’t think so and it’s gross that you would even say that, and then change the topic or walk away. You may not be able to change your colleague’s mind — though it’s certainly worth trying to educate them for the sake of the kids — but you can certainly make it clear that those kinds of comments are not welcome around you, and you won’t cosign or collude with them.
7) Keep your interactions with chronic complainers brief by pointing out the time crunch.
Don’t spend a minute longer with the complainers than you have to. You can use the time crunch teachers are always under as an advantage. In casual situations, stand up in the middle of a colleague’s rant and excuse yourself by saying, “Ooh, it’s 12:25, I gotta make these copies before the kids come back! See you later!” In team meetings, stop the complaining by saying, “We’ve got 20 minutes left, and I know you all want to get out of here on time. Maybe we should finish planning this out and then when we’re done, we can go back and troubleshoot some of these concerns.”
If your meetings are anything like mine were, there won’t be any time at the end to return to the “what abouts,” and if there is time, most folks won’t want to hang around to complain about a topic you wrapped up 20 minutes ago when they could leave and move on with their day.
8) Create a “no complaining” time frame.
I’ve shared before that I used to go out for happy hour with a group of teachers, and we 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?”
It turned out all my friends had also been feeling depressed about our venting habit, but none of us had wanted to be rude and cut the others off. From then on, it became our tradition 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.
You can do the same thing in any regular gathering, like your team meetings: We’ll vent for the first five minutes, and then we’re getting down to business. Announcing that helps make it clear to everyone when it’s okay to complain and when enough is enough.
9) Be blunt about the impact of the negativity on you and draw a clear boundary.
Being around constant negativity can add to or create depression. You can tell the colleagues who are bringing you down, “Honestly, I’m getting depressed from thinking about all of this. I need to keep the negativity to a minimum, so unless it’s something I need to know, please don’t discuss these kinds of things around me. If you do, please don’t think I’m rude, but I’m going to have to walk away in order to take care of myself.”
It’s so rare for people to draw boundaries like this around what they will tolerate that it jars the complainer into being more cognizant of what’s happening. When being negative is your normal state, you don’t even realize how destructive it is anymore unless someone points out the impact it’s having on them. So, tell your colleagues you will excuse yourself and leave the room if they talk about negative situations in front of you, and then DO IT. That’s the boundary part — a boundary is a consequence you control, not the demand on others.
Don’t expect other people to change — you can’t control that and your boundary is not intended to manipulate them into changing. You’re simply giving a heads up as to what you will do if you find yourself in a situation that is depressing you and bringing you down, and then following through on that, not to punish your colleague or shame them, but to protect yourself.
10) 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 any more 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.”
11) Stop thinking about the complainer when you’re not around him or her.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of constantly complaining about the chronic complainers! It’s very tempting to make jokes about the Negative Nellies, anticipate their response to change (“Oh no, I can only imagine what she’s going to say about this!”), and generally give the complainers more consideration than they deserve.
Don’t give them the power to impact your mood when they’re not even around! Ultimately, those people are not going to help you achieve your goals and create the impact you want, and you don’t want to spend too much of your time and energy focusing on them. Instead…
12) 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 or find a Personal Learning Community (PLC) with teachers on social media and receive support there. (Most online groups are free, but you can also join the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club if you want to immerse yourself in a community of teachers who are really committed to being supportive and solution-oriented in their discussions.)
Where you get the support is less important than just ensuring you 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.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode is sponsored by Brains On, which is an award-winning podcast from American Public Media. It’s dedicated to inspiring kids’ natural curiosity about the world. The Brains On podcast has over 100 episodes covering real science topics, including everything from why people have allergies to how electricity works. Now Brains On is offering free standards-based curriculum and activities for teachers to go with each one of those podcast episodes. You can learn more and download their free teacher resources at Brainson.org/learn.