Complaining about what’s wrong with a situation, person, or experience is a way of looking for someone to agree with us and our point of view. Think back and identify when you thought you made a friend for life, but it was short-lived. We look for intimacy and sometimes believe we are the same as someone else based on sharing similar experiences or feelings. It’s as if we’ve found a real connection. We can get caught up in thinking we’ve found a safe place by feeling an instant rapport. We’ve found a common denominator, but if it is a common enemy, beware. “You and me against the world” can connect us, but it’s a perilous foundation for friendships and business relationships. This type of interaction – built on sharing stories and complaints about others – is pseudo-intimacy and inevitably fails.

Woundology, where we nurture old wounds, injuries, and slights by revisiting them repeatedly, serves a purpose. It allows the person licking their wounds to keep them open and fresh, preventing them from accepting what happened and finding a way to move on. It’s much easier to refer to the offending incident and keep it alive by constantly referring to what transpired than doing the work of finding a way past it. Reminding others, especially new acquaintances, of your grievances, can initially garner sympathy and attention, but there comes a time when that starts to wear on any relationship. Complaining about people who have done you wrong has a limited shelf life if building authentic connections is the goal.

Inevitably, and often by surprise, your new best friend/colleague/supplier/customer will turn on you because they sense you’re tiring of their refrain. They might also see things in you that remind them of themselves (being judgmental of others, for example) and that bugs them, so they deflect by listing your faults. This approach of pointing out your shortcomings is used to make you look worse than them. Projecting their flaws onto you, even if some of them are indeed shared, makes you the villain and them the hero. Their self-esteem is saved, and you’re left wondering what happened.

Take the opportunity to breathe. Try not to immediately react by countering their words with a rebuttal. Instead, ask yourself these questions:

  • What part did I play in this? Did you encourage them, swap stories, relish the juicy conversations?
  • What am I going to do to stop any unwanted behaviour I’ve identified in myself? Sometimes we need a wake-up call to jolt us into deciding to make a change.
  • Could this person have issues or challenges that I don’t know about? While you don’t need to find out, a dose of compassion for human frailty is always a good investment.
  • Am I worried they’ll start talking about me now too? You may have a sense of dread but rest easy. Chances are the other person is just as worried. And, if you’ve been a decent person in general, the best thing to do is to say nothing – take the high road.
  • Should I message them or suggest a meeting right away? No. Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. Reacting when provoked rarely turns out well. Take time to decide if the relationship is worth salvaging and if so, hashing out what went wrong won’t help. Slowly build a new foundation that isn’t based on revisiting and sharing gripes by suggesting a new start. And if they say no, that’s okay – it might be a gift.

People complain not because something sucks. People complain because they’re looking for empathy and to feel connected with those around them. Unfortunately, complaining is maybe the least useful way to connect with other human beings.

Mark Manson