For a few weeks last month, I donned my Special Events hat and headed out into the big, bad working world for a few weeks to help the Toronto Argonauts organization deal with a little show they put on called, The Grey Cup. Luckily, my presence on their staff did not prevent people from showing up and we were able to put on a great show. Success!
The job they asked me to do was a slightly daunting one as it meant interfacing with and organizing roughly 1000 volunteers per day over 10 long, difficult days. My job, in a nutshell, was telling them what to wear, where to show up and how to act once they were there. One would think that doing this at home with two children uniquely qualifies me for this task but, unlike my offspring, these people had willingly signed up for the job. It would be safe to assume, then, that tasking them to hand out giant foam fingers to eager fans or help direct drunk, giant-sized tourist from Edmonton towards the CN Tower would be not too taxing.
You thought wrong.
What I didn't prepare for was the complaining. The constant, constant, constant, complaining from what I've come to call the "un-silent minority", that small group within the larger, happy majority who, like their silent brethren, had also willingly given their time and efforts to the Grey Cup cause but who had made it their mission to grind me down like a nub with their constant kvetching. The Laura-tax, I believe it is now called.
To be fair, I know that every workplace has them - the people for whom the weather is always too warm or too cold, the boss is a jerk, the food is lousy and … you can see where I'm going with this. No matter how good things get they still only see the bad - and will go to huge lengths to point it out to everyone around them. Lucky for me, I got not only to see them in person every day but I also got to speak with them on the phone. And the phone is this small groups favourite method of communicating their demands - and they will use like a cudgel on a daily basis to let you know how things could be better for them and others. Somedays, it was like the Globe and Mail comments sections come to life.
The first few days, I took it like a champ. I started out strong: I listened to their complaints, took them in and tried to solve their problems on the spot with efficiency techniques I'd learned from years of dealing with screaming toddlers. I ducked and weaved through every problem - or so I thought - but like Rocky in round 6, I started to fade. The jacket you gave me is a size too big, can I get another? I don't like the area I signed up for can I go elsewhere? Do you have a few minutes to hear my improvements for Grey Cups in year's to come? And my favourite, how did you get this job because it seems like anybody could do it. (Yes. Someone did say this to me AND I didn't punch them in the face.) I was against the ropes, people, and I didn't think was I was gonna make it without someone getting a razor blade and cutting the blood out of my eyes so I could see past the punches. (Come on, Rock!!)
Then it came to me: my perfect strategy. And, no, it wasn't alcohol, my usual fallback position in times of trouble. It was very simple but also very effective and with the right guidance (MINE!), you, too, can get yourself to the other side of sanity with a chronic complainer. Here's how it works:
First, listen to the complainer. Look into their eyes and try not to think about that great episode of Homeland that you watched last night. Then, when they are done with deep sympathy in your voice, say the following: “You know, that sounds terrible. I don’t know how you deal with all of these problems.” The answer will often be "Well..., it’s not that bad!” This approach works because it gives the complainer what he’s really after: Empathy. Not cheering up, not solutions, not egging-on. Just understanding of what is, for him, a difficult situation.
Next - And this is important! - don’t be sarcastic when you say it. Be sincere. You don’t have to agree that these are huge problems. Even if everything the complainer says sounds trivial to you, remember that it feels like a huge problem to him or her wouldn’t go on about it. What seems trivial to one person can be a huge problem for others. So you’re not saying “Yes, I agree that’s a huge problem”. And you’re certainly not saying “Oh, poor poor you” in a sarcastic voice, even though you want to. You really, really want to. You’re just acknowledging the fact that this is a huge problem for that person. Which undeniably it is, right? Right?!!
Finally, after work, find someone that makes you laugh and drink, and drink and drink with them. But not too MUCH! You need to be fresh for the next time. And the next. And the next. And the next.