Nine Ways to Defend Against Complainers

Trevor Blake is a highly successful serial entrepreneur who started his first company with a few thousand dollars and sold it for more than $100 million. Now he’s passionate about showing others how to succeed at anything by using his three-step strategy, based on his business experiences and the latest findings in neuroscience. He writes about this in his new book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella, 2012).

Blake says that being around complainers is not only unpleasant but also bad for your brain. “Brain researchers have long known that the adult brain is surprisingly plastic — we can strengthen synaptic connections through repetition, for example, to improve our memory,” he adds. “But a new study using functional MRIs found that negative words actually stimulate the areas of our brain associated with perceptions and cognitive functioning.”

This matters because, according to Blake, constant exposure to negative messages from complainers will reinforce negative thinking and behavior. “Fascinating new research proves that the brain cannot distinguish fact from fiction, so if you keep hearing negative messages, your behavior will change to fit these new perceptions — and not in a good way,” he explains.

Here are Blake’s nine ways to defend yourself against complaints — yours and others’ — so you can rewire your brain and boost the occurrence of positive thoughts and behaviors:

1. Become self-aware.
When you feel a complaint coming on, no matter how trivial, stop yourself. You can’t delete the thought, but you can revise it before saying it aloud. So instead of saying, “Oh, that’s nice, but I could never afford it,” you might say, “That will look wonderful with my black pants when I can afford to buy it.”

2. Redirect the conversation.
When you participate in negative dialogue with a complainer, you’ll walk away feeling depleted. Instead, take control of the direction the conversation is going. If he says, “I hate Mondays. The weekend isn’t long enough,” counter the negative thoughts with a positive set of images: “I’m glad I rested up this weekend. Now I’m ready to dig into that big project.”

3. Smother a negative thought with a positive image.
If a negative thought pops into your mind, immediately input a different image. This is the process of “neurogenesis” — creating new pathways in your brain that lead to positive behaviors. So if you look outside and see rain and wind, and think to yourself “The weather sucks,” immediately conjure up a pleasant image, say, a sunny day on a beach with a tropical breeze.

4. Don’t try to convert others.
When trapped in a toxic group of complainers at a meeting or social event, simply choose silence. Let their words bounce off you and not penetrate your mind while you think of something pleasant. If you try to stop them, you may end up alienating yourself and becoming a target.

5. Distance yourself when possible.
When people around you start criticizing someone or something and you can escape, excuse yourself and take a break somewhere quiet — preferably outside in the fresh air. Think of something pleasant before returning. You have to take this seriously, because negative people can and will pull you into the quicksand.

6. Wear an invisible “mentality shield.”
Imagine that an invisible shield like a glass cloak made of positive energy descends from the sky and lightly covers your whole body. You can see perfectly well through it but it protects you from others’ negative words and emotions. This technique is used by professional athletes to deflect the negative energy of a hostile crowd.

7. Create a private retreat.
Mentally retreat to a private, special place in your imagination. Visualize a peaceful setting in your mind–say, a sunny trail next to a meadow brook, or a sailboat on a lake. When you’re stuck with someone who’s spewing vitriol, you can appear as if you’re listening while you distract your mind with a visit to your peaceful place.

8. Transfer responsibility.
On occasions when you’re pressed against a wall while someone rants about all the injustices in their life, throw the responsibility back at them by saying, “So what do you intend to do about it?” In most cases, complainers don’t want a solution nor do they want sympathy. They just want to vent, and this tactic will stop them in their tracks.

9. Forgive your lapses.
Everyone complains sometimes. Your favorite team loses. Your computer crashes. Deadlines pile up. It’s human to vent once in a while. Be kind to yourself after a lapse into victimhood and complaining–and start afresh. The less frequently you complain, the more time will pass between lapses into negativity. This how rewiring the brain works.

> Read “Beware of Workplace Frenemies” for more tips on protecting yourself from negativity at work.

And how do you deal with complainers — at work or anywhere in your life? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

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  • Robert L. Askew Sr.

    Sence Monster has taking over, Yahoo’s ” Hot Jobs”. I have not been able to access my Resume. Some tell me why.

  • Lisa Montalva

    Isn’t it amazing how everyone complains about something. No matter if its on my job board; or my recipe site; or even my women’s organization where I help. Someone has something negative to say. In the beginning I use to fight back, but now I just let it roll off my shoulders. Those negative feelings and thoughts are not allowed in my life. Thoughts can be changed just like your pants. If you have negative thoughts you will have negative responses in your life. So, just ignore those people and try to remove them from your life.

    Lisa Montalva

  • Grace Lin

    Love this article- especially #9. It’s easy for me to recognize complainers, but it’s especially hard for me pull out of being trapped into one when I one of my strengths is “Harmony,” according to a book Strengths Finder 2.0 on NYTimes bestselling author list. To forgive yourself and move on is just what I tend to forget sometimes. Funny how I am easier to forgive others than myself.