7 clever ways to handle a conversation with a chronic complainer, according to psychology

I’d be lying if I said I never complain. And you would, too.

The truth is that we all complain sometimes, and that’s completely okay.

After all, why shouldn’t you vent after a long day at work or grumble when you’ve been trying to plug the charger into the socket for the past three minutes, twisting it this way and that?

Complaining can be a very effective way to let go of pent-up stress, have your feelings validated by others, and bond over your shared misfortune with another person.

Chronic complaining, though…

That’s a different story.

It’s draining, it’s detrimental to one’s relationships and well-being, and to top it all off, it annoys the hell out of people.

Luckily, there are certain 7 clever ways to handle a conversation with a chronic complainer.

And they’re described below.

1) Understand where they’re coming from

Before we go any further, let me say this: it is not your responsibility to excuse someone else’s behavior.

If their complaining is getting on your nerves, you are absolutely right to feel that way and should take the necessary steps to look after your own well-being first and foremost.

However, it does help to try to understand where chronic complainers are usually coming from, and that’s because a better understanding of the issue will help you take the right course of action without blowing up, making passive-aggressive digs, or avoiding the person in question just because you don’t know how to set boundaries.

So, here’s how a chronic complainer thinks according to psychologist Guy Winch Ph.D.: “Chronic complainers do not usually see themselves as negative people. Rather they perceive themselves as forever being on the losing end of things, and drawing the short straw on a daily basis.”

“Therefore they see the world as being negative and themselves as merely responding appropriately to annoying, aggravating, or unfortunate circumstances.”

He offers a clever suggestion: “Do not try to convince a chronic complainer things are ‘not as bad’ as they think they are or suggest they are ‘over-reacting’ to events and situations. This will only compel him or her to mention 10 additional complaints or dissatisfactions you have not yet heard about, to give you a better understanding of how terrible their lives actually are.”

Instead, try to…

2) Acknowledge their concerns

Look, I know that it’s annoying to constantly have to reassure someone that they’ve got it hard.

And I’m not saying you should do it every time someone complains, especially if they’ve been going at it for ages.

But sometimes, acknowledging another person’s issue and validating their feelings is enough to make them feel seen and understood.

What’s more, chronic complainers don’t respond very well to practical solutions.

More often than not, they want you to hear them out and offer them a shoulder to cry on.

As Winch explains, “Even when your advice would actually resolve a problem, chronic complainers will not be especially happy to hear it: Anything that takes away some recognition of their ‘hardship’ will be experienced as threatening to their identity and even their sense of self.”

As per his recommendation, “In the majority of situations (there are some obvious exceptions), you should avoid offering advice or solutions and stick to sympathy and emotional validation.”

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t help them reach a solution in another way…

3) Nudge them toward an independent solution

Nudge them toward an independent solution 7 clever ways to handle a conversation with a chronic complainer, according to psychology

If your immediate response to a complaint is to jump straight into problem-solving mode, there’s a high chance you’ll be unsuccessful.

The primary function of complaining is to feel understood, not to have one’s problems solved by others.

When someone complains all the time, though, I get that it can be really frustrating to constantly just validate their struggles and see them do nothing about the situation itself.


Solution-oriented questions!

Instead of telling people how to solve their problems or how to feel, try to ask them how they’re planning to reach a resolution.

Remember that it’s important to do this in a polite and kind way, though.

If you ask questions of this sort in a passive-aggressive manner, you’re just going to make everything worse because the other person will be able to tell and will feel judged and misunderstood.

Here are a few examples:

  • “That must be really hard. What do you think you’re going to do?”
  • “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, that sounds tough. Do you think there’s a way to solve this somehow?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear it, I’d feel rubbish, too! So, what’s the plan?”

Acknowledgement plus a solution-oriented question equals a good result. In most cases, anyway.

4) Redirect the conversation

The advice above is sound enough, but what do you do if you’ve been dealing with a chronic complainer for so long that you literally don’t have it in you to validate their struggles anymore?

Well, you could just change the topic.

Not abruptly, of course.

That could come across as a bit rude.

But if you say something noncommittal and then subtly and respectfully redirect the flow of the conversation, the person in question may let their complaint go and focus on something more positive instead.

Whatever you do, though, remember not to say, “Look on the bright side!” or “On a positive note…”


Because these kinds of phrases only make people feel invisible, adding to their collection of complaints.

Telling someone to look on the bright side has never actually made them look on the bright side.

It’s just made them even more aware of how freaking dark their own side is.

5) Address the issue

Of course, you could always just… talk about it.

I know, I know. How radical of me.

The thing is, though, many chronic complainers don’t realize they’re doing it.

And trust me, many would prefer it if they knew you’re not eye-rolling after every interaction with them and actually enjoy the time you spend together.

So, if someone’s been complaining about everything and anything for some time now, why not bring it up?

Again, keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to do this in an assertive, respectful way.

For example, you could say: “I’d like to talk to you about something. It seems to me that you complain a lot but never do anything about the issue in question, and it’s a bit draining for me to offer emotional support over and over again but see no progress. I love you and want you to be happy and it feels like these conversations never lead anywhere productive.”

If you’re dealing with someone who’s quite emotionally mature, they will take your feedback into consideration and try to change their ways so that your relationship is healthier for both parties.

If bringing up concerns of this kind destroys the relationship…

Well, was it a valuable and healthy relationship in the first place?

Just something to think about.

6) Honor your boundaries

In her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab says, “We simply can’t have a healthy relationship with another person without communicating what’s acceptable and unacceptable to us. If we aren’t proactive about this in our relationships, we can be sure the other person will set their boundaries.”

A chronic complainer’s boundaries go something like this: “I will complain, you will hear me out, and then I will complain about the same thing again.”

Your boundaries ought to destroy that pattern and put your dynamic on the right track.

But communicating what you want – which is essentially what we did in the previous section – is but one part of the process.

The next step is to honor your boundaries.

See, the thing is that try as they might, many people end up pushing or breaking your boundaries.

They may forget that you set them in the first place; they might ignore them out of convenience; they might try to see where your limits truly lie.

Whatever it is, the key to maintaining a manageable relationship with them is to reassert your boundaries when necessary.

As Tawab explains, you can do so by showing that there are clear consequences for going against your wishes.

For instance, you could say, “I told you I didn’t want to talk about X anymore because I don’t like that you complain and never do anything about the situation. Let’s change the topic.”

7) Minimize your interactions

If none of the tips above work, and if you can feel that the chronic complainer has a pretty bad influence on you, it may be time to consider cutting them off – or reducing your contact at the very least.

As for handling a conversation with them in the here and now, you can just… leave.

Here’s a polite and detached alternative: “Listen, it’s been nice to see you again, but I’ve got to head now.”

Here’s a more personal and assertive alternative: “I’ve told you before that I didn’t want to talk about X/complain about Y. This is really draining for me, so I’m going to head.”

It sounds harsh, right?

Well, tough luck. If you’ve restated your boundaries over and over again, and the person still can’t bring themselves to respect your wishes, you don’t have to go along with it.

Your time is a precious resource. Your energy even more so.

If you don’t want to deal with a chronic complainer any longer, remember that you don’t owe them anything.

Sometimes, it’s okay to respectfully make your way to leave.

Picture of Ethan Sterling

Ethan Sterling

Ethan Sterling has a background in entrepreneurship, having started and managed several small businesses. His journey through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship provides him with practical insights into personal resilience, strategic thinking, and the value of persistence. Ethan’s articles offer real-world advice for those looking to grow personally and professionally.

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