Dear Work It Out,
How do I handle when one of my friends constantly complains about their work but doesn't do anything to change their situation?
Tired of Complaints
As long as work and dealing with other people are part of our lives, complaining about work — and complaining about other people complaining about work — will be too. But even though those are givens, it can become wearying when someone you care about gripes constantly.
To deal with that without losing your patience, I suggest a three-pronged approach.
1. 'Do you want to vent or do you want advice?'
Everyone has a frustrating day at work sometimes. It's human nature (and, I would argue, perfectly healthy) to grouse to someone with a sympathetic ear. When you're the owner of said ear though, it makes sense to set expectations before your friend or partner sets in on the annoying way their co-worker talks on the phone or the many delays a project is facing.
When a friend starts in on detailing their office travails, finding out upfront what they're hoping to get out of it helps both of you. They get a listener who will provide them with the type of reaction they're looking for, and you get to devote only as much brain-space to the issue as it requires.
Taking the time to ask that question may help whoever's complaining figure out what they're really looking for. Tips? Sympathy? A reality check?
Getting them to explain what they want to get out of your conversation might be the first step to clarifying what they want out of their work situation.
2. Take note of common themes
Ultimately, someone else's work woes are likely to be out of your control (provided you're not their manager). But that doesn't mean you can't provide some assistance in helping your friend figure out what the solutions might be.
When you're having a lot of issues at work, sometimes it feels easier to approach them as one-offs: My co-worker won't send me the document I need, my boss keeps changing the goals we're supposed to be hitting, I can't believe how many meetings I have per week, etc.
While those could all be standalone issues, many times they're not.
Helping someone see the big picture and connect the dots may be what helps them move to make changes.
In most situations, what you're trying to help someone decide is whether there's a way through their issues — by working with their boss and co-workers in this circumstance — or whether the best solution is simply for them to get out. That could mean leaving for a while ("You sound burnt out! Can you take PTO?") or for real ("Maybe it's time to update your LinkedIn").
For instance, if your friend has been venting for weeks on end about the daily grind of their 9 to 5, it could be helpful to mention to point out the pattern. To them, it might seem like every day presented them with some new annoyance; they might not have realized how regularly work stuff was pushing their buttons.
Your perspective might help them consider whether they'd benefit from coming up with a solution, whether that's taking a break like a vacation, having a conversation with their manager, or looking for a job that's a better fit.
3. Draw boundaries
I assume, if you're asking this question, it's because you want to be a good friend and support someone you care about. But ultimately, many of us also reach a point where we just. can't. take. any. more. complaining.
Don't be afraid to set some limits. A good friend will understand that not wanting to listen to every detail of every issue doesn't mean you don't care about their well-being.
What that may look like in practice will look different depending on the situation and relationship.
Maybe it's setting a mutual pact that you each get 10 minutes to air grievances, or setting aside a specific time each week to talk through what's going on. Maybe it means helping them find another method of stress relief entirely, especially if your friend mainly likes their gig and is just blowing off steam.
Helping them find a way to channel their frustration into either a solo or group activity could mean that you end up receiving complaints more sporadically, or only the ones that your friend is really struggling with.
I personally have been known to bake away a bad work day. A lot of times, I just need an outlet for my stress, and taking a solitary hour or two to measure and mix ingredients gives me time to reflect and break some things (mainly eggs).
At the end, I have a sense of accomplishment, plus something delicious to eat.
If I still feel the need to talk it out afterward, I know at that point it's important enough for me to involve another person. And I've had some time to sort out how I really feel.
All of this said, there's no guarantee that anyone in your life will start more productively channeling their work complaints, or that they'll suddenly figure out a way to fix them. When all else fails, be kind, be patient, and hope that when you have something to kvetch about, you'll have an eager listener.
Work it Out is Make It's revived advice column for employment-related conundrums. Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at email@example.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.
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