my coworker won’t stop complaining about work

A reader writes:

A friend and coworker of mine (we met at our current job and became friends outside of work), I’ll call her Donna, is deeply unhappy. Her morale is low and rightfully so—her manager is, to be blunt, incompetent, and she’s had to put up with multiple negative experiences over the past couple of years. She’s been looking for another job but without much success. We work in a relatively niche industry so she’s had trouble finding much, though I’ve tried to help her. I spoke to an old colleague on her behalf and gave a recommendation, which resulted in her resume moving forward in the hiring process at said colleague’s company, but she didn’t end up getting an offer. I’ve also offered to connect her with other contacts of mine but she doesn’t seem to want to talk to any of them (just wants me to find things out for her/ask questions on her behalf).

The biggest problem at this point is that this is affecting Donna’s work and her interactions at work. Any time I talk to her, she just wants to complain and is clearly miserable. A few times she’s even complained to me about work that I’ve assigned her (we’re at the same level but I do some project management for a team we’re both on). She’s also checked out—she’s been dropping the ball on some deadlines and disregarding certain workflow processes.

I’ve suggested that she speak to a career coach or a recruiter, since she seems to be at a dead end in her job search and she is clearly unhappy in her current position. Whenever I suggest this, she says, “Yeah, maybe I should,” but she hasn’t.

At this point, is there anything I can do to help her, other than lend a sympathetic ear? And, since I kind of have the feeling your answer will be that I’ve done all I can do, how can I better cope with her negativity? I don’t want to say anything to upset her or to de-legitimize her feelings, but the only topic of conversation she seems capable of lately is complaining about work, and I can only take so much of it. I should add that I’ve had some low points in my own happiness at this job, but I’ve been trying hard to stay positive and stick it out so that I can gain more experience in my current role before moving on.

Donna may not be at a point where she really wants help — or at least not where she’ll put it to use. It sounds like she’s stuck on the venting portion of the “I hate my job and need to leave” train and hasn’t yet hopped off to say: “I’m going to take concrete actions to make that happen.”

It’s possible that her job search has been more robust than what you described in your letter, but someone who’s highly motivated to get out generally would be taking you up on your offers to connect her with contacts and doing the other things you’ve suggested, like talking to a recruiter. For whatever reason, she’s not. And that’s her prerogative! But you should take your cues from that, because it doesn’t make sense for you to pour more energy into her search than she’s putting into it herself. You’ve offered help and you’ve offered advice, and you don’t need to keep searching for ways to do more.

Meanwhile, though, accommodating her constant complaining probably isn’t helping, because it’s likely keeping her mired in negative feelings about work. Frequent complaining has a way of magnifying problems and making them even more unbearable. That’s not to say that people should ignore real problems at work — they shouldn’t — but chronic complaining, especially to someone who has no power to change whatever the problems are, isn’t particularly constructive and after a while can become genuinely toxic.

And it’s not just toxic to her. It’s affecting you too, and it sounds like it’s making your work environment a significantly less pleasant one. It’s exhausting to work around someone who complains so frequently, and that alone is a reason to ask her to rein in the chronic complaining, totally aside from the fact that it likely would be good for her as well.

So truly, it sounds like the most valuable thing you can offer Donna right now is a reality check about how out of control her complaining has become, and how it’s impacting her work. She might need a nudge to deal with whatever’s keeping her from job-hunting more aggressively.

If the two of you were just colleagues and not real friends, I’d suggest that you just pull back from your involvement in her job search and ask her to rein in the negativity around you, explaining that it’s impacting your own quality of life at work. But because you’re friends, it’s worth trying a one-time heart-to-heart with her about the whole situation.

You could say something like this: “I’m really sorry that you’re having such a hard time with your job here and with your job search. I know that’s a difficult, frustrating place to be. As your friend, I feel like I need to tell you that it’s at the point where your unhappiness is affecting your work here, and I’m worried that if you don’t rein it in, it will start to impact your reputation and even make it harder to get another job. I totally understand the reasons why you’re checked out, but it’s showing up in your work in ways I don’t think you’d want, like missing deadlines and not following processes like X and Y. I don’t know if you realized that you’ve even complained to me about work that I’ve assigned to you!”

If she responds by once again telling you all the reasons why she’s unhappy, keep in mind here that your goal isn’t to convince her to see things your way. You’re just flagging this in case she genuinely didn’t realize her unhappiness is starting to affect her work, and what she does with that is up to her. If she chooses not to take the feedback you’re offering, so be it.

But from there, you can say this: “I do understand why you’re unhappy here. At this point, though, it’s been months, and I’m finding it really tough to keep talking through all the things that we’d change about this place. Staying so focused on the problems here is making work much harder for me, and for my own mental health, I need to pull back from venting about that stuff.” You could add, “But if there’s anything specific I can do to help in your job search, I’m totally up for that.”

From there, if she keeps trying to complain to you, you can try the No. 1 anti-complainer tactic and ask, “What are you going to do about it?” That may or may not nudge her into action, but it’ll definitely make you less satisfying to complain to, which is a good outcome too. Or you can just say, “I’m sorry — like I said before, I’m trying to stay more positive here for my own peace of mind” and then follow that up with a quick subject change.

If you worry that saying this will sound callous, like you don’t care about her problems, keep in mind that you’re speaking out of concern for her and emphasizing that you’re willing to help in her search — but also standing up for your own mental health, which you’re entitled to do. And really, there’s only so long that it’s reasonable to expect even good friends to listen sympathetically to a long-running complaint. At some point, the complainer needs to either take real action to change their situation or figure out a way to live reasonably happily in it. It’s not okay to keep complaining to friends about it indefinitely. (And it’s even less okay to do that to co-workers, since they’re a captive audience who can’t escape.)

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 236 comments… read them below }

  1. Not Tom, just Petty*

    I had this friend/coworker. I went for walks at lunch with her, I had coffee breaks with her. It was was “I am frustrated and upset. This happened and this is going to happen and this is…”
    after week two, I said, “You are talking about these same things everyday.”
    Coworker: “that’s how I process things. I talk them through.”
    Me: “Here’s the thing, it’s been almost a month. I talk to you three times a day. You say the exact same thing about the exact same issues in the exact same words every single time. You are not processing at all. You are stuck. You are not helping yourself and you’re not letting anyone else help you. I can’t listen any more if you can only do this. If you want to strategize* about a change, I will be part of a dialog, but I cannot do this anymore.”

    *thought that was a word. oh well. NTJP

    1. aes_sidhe*

      Strategize is a word. :)

      I’ve had to have this conversation before, and it’s awkward af. I will say that, when I said it, it was like a kick in the seat of the pants for the other person. They finally recognize me they were in an endless cycle of complaining and not actually doing anything about it. They started looking for a job and found something else that made them much happier.

        1. Indoor Cat*

          Different versions of English (England vs. New Zealand vs. American) spell it differently, so if your autocorrect changed it to strategise, it might be set to a different country’s standard of English.

      1. Samata*

        I just had to have this conversation with my father. I don’t know if he’s realized much yet, but he’s stopped bitching to me nonstop about his situation that he is doing nothing to change/get out of.

    2. C in the Hood*

      Good for you to talk straight-up to your friend. There have been studies on the negative effects of ruminating, and that’s just what she was doing.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Good point. I think there’s a distinction between the occasional “Today life sucks, and I am going to wallow for an hour of bitterness” vs it just constantly sucking in all the ways which no one could possibly address, over and over.

        1. Not Tom, just Petty*

          So much this. The mind is so powerful. Just like when you remember something, your mind takes you there, and you can almost smell the candles on your 5th birthday cake, your mind can trap you in this idea. The idea that everything is bad becomes a real, almost tangible thing.
          I’ve used a rubber band before. When I find myself obsessing over something instead of processing, I will snap the band. That s#$% hurts! But it’s strong enough to take me out of my mind.

        2. Gaia*

          This. I have moments where I feel blah and am negative. Heck, I have some weeks where more days than not are like this. But overall, in the big picture, I choose to take a positive approach towards life. Does it mean I am always happy? No. It means that when I am unhappy I choose to dwell for a moment and then figure out: how bad is this really and, if it is something I can’t accept, how do I change it?

        3. Seriously?*

          Yep. It is also a little different if it is “Person Y did this thing today that is driving me crazy and I need to vent or I will explode at them” which may happen repeatedly with different things. That can be a healthy way to deal with things. Complaining that Tom changed the printing policy everyday for a month is not healthy because you are not moving on.

          1. Julie in Ohio*

            Unless Tom really did change the printing policy every day for a month, in which case I’d be darn peeved myself. (Sorry, that’s how I read it at first. *grin*)

    3. MoinMoin*

      I used to do this. I ended up starting a journal and every morning I write down everything that I have to do or that’s making me feel anxious or whatever and every evening I write down what I actually accomplished that day. It got to the point that I was sick of writing the same things in the morning and having nothing to write in the evening that actually justified me not tackling the morning stuff, that I actually started doing stuff. I could have used a friend like you.

      1. Not Tom, just Petty*

        The journal is a cool idea.
        Kind of amazing how effective just putting down the words is. I think it goes along with checklists, like sometimes I will add a couple things I’ve already done onto my to do list, because crossing them off is so satisfying.

        1. MsSolo*

          Oh, checklist tip! Give yourself a to do list on one page, and write what you’ve done on another. At the end of the day, reconcile them. The important part, though, is you are only allowed to carry one thing over from today’s to do list to tomorrow’s. Anything else that’s left can go on the day after, if it’s still important, but the one-day-one-do rule always applies.

          If you find you’ve often got multiple things left undone, examine why – are your prioritising other things over them? Are you overextending yourself? Are you constantly being given extra last minute work? How can you make changes to balance it out? If you find you’re hitting the to do list and a bunch of other tasks as well, examine why those things weren’t on the to do list – it could be a symptom of imposter syndrome, or a prioritising issue, or extra last minute work that you actually do have time for, and therefore didn’t need to be last minute. If you’re exactly one for one, examine that too – could you stretch yourself with an extra task and take something off someone else’s plate? Or maybe something for you – try adding learning a new language into the list, or similar. Or maybe your life is perfectly balanced, in which case you need to share how you achieved that with the rest of us!

      2. Jenny Next*

        Yes, yes! Doing “morning pages” a la Julia Cameron* for a few weeks helped me get out of a serious negative loop. I just got tired of re-hashing the same things over and over.

        It also helped with planning the day and thinking through upcoming work. Since I had to sit there for 45 minutes and write, it provided focus.

        Your end-of-the-day summary idea is great. I’m going to try that.

    4. SDSmith82*

      I too have had this coworker (two of them at the same time) we’d go to lunch, they’d complain and I’d say “well, then start looking and leave the situation!” they’d look at me like I was crazy. I eventually realized that all of those coworkers were in that same “stuck” mindset- and that I didn’t want to be. Their mindset was contagious and came from the top down. They were all miserable, but found comfort in the misery. I didn’t want to become that way and feel as trapped as they all seemed to be. So I looked. And I found better, and I left.

      That place was toxic, and as unhappy as everyone there is, all 9 of them were too scared to do anything about.

    5. Allison*

      Good on you for being straightforward! I wish I could say this to my coworker, but we just aren’t close enough for me to feel comfortable having this conversation with her.

      In hindsight, I’ve also been the complainy friend, and it’s taken a long time to learn that no one wants to hear you whine about the same stuff all the time, but I’ve definitely had people just slowly distance themselves from me, or totally invalidated my feelings and told me to just get over it, instead of saying “I don’t want to hear about this anymore” or “I need you to find a new outlet for these frustrations, because I can’t be a sounding board anymore.” I’d like to think that if they’d just said that, I could have worked on that habit and we could have stayed friends.

    6. Menacia*

      How did changing your strategy go? Did she stop talking to you, or did she push through her immobility?

  2. Eye of Sauron*

    This is one of those situations that calls for you to ask:

    “Hmm… sounds rough, what are you planning to do about that?”
    “Oof… What steps have you taken to fix that?”
    “mmm… What do you think you should do?”
    “gosh that’s too bad, how are you going to manage this?”

    Complainers want to complain, they don’t want to fix. She may have been in the fixing mode at one time, but it doesn’t sound like it, since you have been doing most of her legwork. Keep at it and she should get the hint… if she doesn’t than you are clear to say “Donna, I feel bad for the spot you are in, but I can’t fix it. I understand you want to vent from time to time, but this is all we talk about and I don’t want to talk about it anymore”

    1. Luna*

      I know this is common advice that Alison and others give for these situations, but I really dislike it. It seems unnecessarily condescending IMO. It would be different if LW knew her friend wasn’t doing anything, but her friend has been applying to jobs, just without success. Saying “what are you going to do about it” is like rubbing salt in the wounds. Her friend IS trying to do something about it; finding a new job is hard and doesn’t happen overnight. I think the below suggestion of framing it in terms of the LW herself trying to stay positive is much preferable- it gets the same point across while being less passive-aggressive/hostile to the friend.

      1. Czhorat*

        I agree.

        Sometimes people just need to vent and aren’t looking for a solution. if it reaches the point at which it becomes toxic there’s nothing wrong with listening while not too deeply engaging. It can be a real balancing act between being a supportive active listener and feeding into their negativity.

      2. grace*

        It comes across that way to me as well, unless it’s said in juuuust the right tone. When I have friends who are like this, I generally ask them if they want advice or just a listening ear, and then adjust my approach appropriately. Listening can be done with half a mind – or you can give some excuse about how you don’t have the time/ability/mindset to do that today. There’s graceful ways to bow out of a conversation, but ‘what do you want to do about this’ is often only sometimes one of them.

        1. Washi*

          Yes. It will come across as condescending if your goal is to get the other person to shut up already (and if you’re at that point, you should just be direct and use of Alison’s other lines.) But if you are genuinely interested and concerned, I’ve found that redirecting from feelings to actions can be helpful for both people. “Oh no! What are you going to do?” “How is the job search going?” “Have anything fun planned this weekend to de-stress?”

          1. LouiseM*

            I think the problem is that it seems like 99% of the time when someone writes in with a similar problem on this site and gets this exact advice, their goal *is* just to get the other person to shut up already. It’s very easy for that to come across when it is the case.

            1. LW*

              Hi! LW here. Just to clarify, my goal isn’t to get Donna to just shut up. I truly want her to be happy. If that means finding a new job, then I’d love for her to find a new job. If it means staying in this current one with a change in perspective/attitude, then I’d be happy about that too! What perhaps didn’t come across in my letter is that her complaining is dragging her down, and not doing her any good (other than perhaps initial catharsis from venting).

              1. Safetykats*

                Unfortunately, you’re not responsible for her job search or her attitude. Some people really never figure out that in most situations they can be just as happy as they decide to be. Attitude controls satisfaction in a great many situations, and if there is something that makes you unhappy you can focus on something that does make you happy, or you can carry your unhappiness around like a collection of rocks in your pocket. When there might be a potential for a happy situation (like having a job that gives you time to talk with a coworker who cares about your happiness), you squander it by pulling out one of your rocks just to remind everyone, including you, how unhappy you are.

                You can have that conversation with her, and it might help. It’s certain that her complaining isn’t making her any happier, and is probably making her more unhappy. Unfortunately, she is going to have to fix her own attitude. In the meantime, if her complaining is also making you unhappy, you probably need to limit your time with her. Because honestly, if having you around is just another opportunity for her show off the rocks in her pockets and revisit how unhappy she is, then spending time with her isn’t helping her – it’s just perpetuating her problem.

      3. Ainomiaka*

        And this advice kinda mushes setting a boundary on listening to complaints with making it immoral to complain. Which I think is looking like a problem a lot of people have here. Everyone gets to decide on their own boundaries and listening limits. That’s not the same as the coworker being wrong to complain and be unhappy.

        1. Luna*

          Exactly this, well said- it’s not that people can’t establish their own limits, but everyone complains sometimes and that doesn’t make them immoral. Some people are in bad situations and can’t always get out right away despite their best efforts; I think that makes others uncomfortable sometimes because then it could happen to them some day too, so instead they blame the complainer and insist they are not trying hard enough/doing something wrong/a bad person/bad worker.

          1. LBK*

            I mean, I think it only makes you a bad person insofar as continuing to do anything that you know is annoying other people makes you a bad person. “Immoral” seems like a strong word, but certainly you’re kinda being a jerk if you just will not stop talking about the same thing that people don’t want to listen to, whether that’s your job search, Game of Thrones, politics, etc.

            I think this is particularly true when there’s no clear goal of the complaints. “Because it momentarily makes me feel better to vent about it” is a tenuous claim anyway since the positive effects of venting aren’t especially well-proven, and it is kinda selfish to value that perceived relief over the needs of your captive audience.

            1. Luna*

              I’m not sure I would agree that talking about one’s own life is the same thing as talking about a TV show. But either way, the friend doesn’t know she is being annoying as far as we’re aware, because the LW has never said anything. To be clear I am not trying to tell LW that she has no recourse to push back, just that I personally dislike the “but what are you doing” method. I think that there are better ways to get the same result.

              1. LBK*

                I don’t think repeating the same complaints ad nauseam really counts as “talking about one’s own life” – at some point it stops to be any kind of engaging explanation of things that are going on with you and starts just becoming drivel.

                I agree that I don’t necessarily love jumping straight to “what are you doing about it?” (although I don’t think it’s wrong to say that to a friend) but I think “do you want advice or do you just want to vent?” is an appropriate question, and if the answer is the latter, you can follow it up by saying “I can’t listen to complaints about this anymore, so if you need to vent, please do it with someone else.”

        2. LouiseM*

          Good point! Honestly, nobody likes listening to their friends complain but everyone has to do it. If it’s affecting your mental health then by all means, set a boundary. Otherwise, suck it up.

          1. Specialk9*

            I’ve read that women more than men bond by complaining, whereas men complain to assert superiority. It made we watch that dynamic a bit more with women, and there’s something there.

      4. Nye*

        Yeah, I tend to agree. If a friend said this to me, I’d taken it badly. It’s condescending and seems to go against the basic compact of a friendship, which is that sometimes you get to vent to each other. If she were just a coworker, fine, but you have to deal with a certain amount of venting from a friend (as they do from you). If it’s excessive or really getting you down, skip to the, “I’m sorry but I just don’t want to dwell on this.” part of the script. If a friend asked “What are you going to do about it?”, I’d feel like I was being managed and it would really sour the friendship.

        1. Massmatt*

          But the key words about listening to venting are “sometimes” and “a certain amount”. I have had this conversation with friends and family (and they have had it with me!), sometimes it’s a good wake up call when they didn’t realize how much they were wallowing/bitching and moaning etc, and it was a good push to the next step of doing more about it.

          People who are consistently negative gradually get shunned by everyone except likewise negative people, and then wonder why they’re unhappy. I had an aunt that was a textbook case. I tuned her out pretty quickly, others in my family were at first appalled but then eventually did the same thing.

          A little off topic but every time I hear a “my kids never call me” or “I never hear from so and so” I wonder well, what is it like for them when they call, do you spend the bulk of it scolding them for not calling more or sooner? Sure recipe for getting fewer calls!

        2. LBK*

          Hmmm, but a friend isn’t also just meant to be a brick wall that you can throw all your problems against and expect them to take it silently. A friend is also meant to help you – and sure, they have to be sensitive to whether you really want that help or not, but it is part of being a good friend to call attention to things you might not have the self-awareness to realize yourself, eg that you’ve been complaining about the same thing for a month but not doing anything about it.

          1. LBK*

            (And, FWIW, I think one of the things that works best about my relationship with my boyfriend is that we generally do not use each other as venting pits for our work issues. Honestly, no one cares about your job problems as much as you do and it’s exhausting to listen to especially if you don’t actually want advice and just want to freely spew negativity.)

            1. Eye of Sauron*

              Heh, my husband and I have a rule that we can’t both hate our jobs at the same time. It’s a pretty good way to get you out of a negative rut.

              Me: omg… can you believe what happened to me.. blah blah blah
              Him: Nuh uh… It’s my turn to hate my job… you have to suck it up until I’m done
              Me: Crap… you’re right, nevermind


              Me: omg… can you believe what happened to me.. blah blah blah
              Him: Nuh uh… It’s my turn to hate my job… you have to suck it up until I’m done
              Me: Nope, you’ve had it for the last 2 months, my turn!
              Him: Ok, you get if the next 2 weeks but I get it back at the end of the month when that big deadline hits.
              Me: Deal

              1. mark132*

                When I’m on a date with my wife, I’ll actually look at a clock and limit the amount of time I complain about work. Usually at most just 10-15 minutes. So I get to vent but not dominate the date with my complaining.

          2. Nye*

            Sure, but I think there are much better ways to talk to a friend in a tough place than to ask them what they’re going to do about it. It’s something I would expect to hear from a boss or a coworker with whom I’m not close. I would find it insulting to be treated like an employee by a friend. I’d much rather they just tell me, “Hey, I’m sorry that your job sucks but let’s talk about something more positive.” Or, if you think they’re really missing something, maybe, “I’m sorry, buddy. It doesn’t seem like things are getting any better for you at work. I hope the job hunt works out soon – let me know if I can help.”

            The point isn’t that friendship gives you free reign to complain endlessly. It’s that complaining coworkers and complaining friends should be treated differently – which I think is part of what’s putting OP in a tough spot, since the complainer in question is both.

            1. LBK*

              I’m genuinely surprised by this – you don’t want your friends to give you advice on issues? Maybe “what are you going to do about it?” isn’t the softest framing, but the general idea is to get them thinking about actually working through the problem. That’s exactly what I’d expect a friend to do for me; if I bring up something that’s going on in my life, I expect to hear their perspective, and sometimes that involves asking questions like “what have you done about it so far?” so they can figure out what I’ve been trying and maybe provide other suggestions.

              All of this seems like regular friend stuff to me. It’s odd how many people seem to treat their friends like a voice recorder that’s just there to take in their oral history without comment.

              1. Cercis*

                Except if you know the friend is actively trying to do something about it and nothing is working, it’s pretty condescending. Now, if you have advice on something additional they can do, that’s great. But advice such as “what are you going to do about it?” when you know they’re actively working on it is pretty off-putting.

                1. LBK*

                  “What are you going to do about it?” is not the advice. That is the opening question that starts a conversation about what they’re doing so that you can give advice if applicable. I’m confused why so many people are misunderstanding the intent here.

              2. Quoth the Raven*

                you don’t want your friends to give you advice on issues?

                Not always. Sometimes I just want to vent. And sometimes I want to be validated, so to speak (“Yeah, you’re right, that isn’t okay” or “I see why this upsets you”, for example). Not that it’s not okay to offer advice, of course.

                “What are you going to do about it?” rubs me terribly wrong, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe because the only people who have said it me were kind of condescending about it. I don’t have the same problem with being asked, for example, “What steps have you taken?”

              3. MsSolo*

                I have a friend who really hates being given advice. She owns that’s it’s mostly her own hangup – some very condescending people in her past combined with a mental health issue that’s a magnet for “but have you just tried not being X?” – but it does make it hard sometimes to interact with her, because she ends up venting about the same things over and over and there’s no obvious movement from the outside.

                I actively avoid venting (my own hang up is people being sympathetic rather than responding to a request for help – I don’t want your thoughts and prayers, I’m asking you to proofread my CV!) because I’m more like you – if I bring something up in my life I want their perspective and their help. Having to go back to her with “no, but I want your advice” feels like a passive aggressive stab at her communication style, because she’s offering me what she’d want in my circumstances.

                It’s making it harder and harder for my friend and I to communicate, because we’re both wary of expressing problems with our lives to each other now, and as time goes by we have less in common than we did a decade ago to enjoy together. I don’t demand all my conversations are productive, but if I interact with a person, I like to get something positive out of it, even if it’s just a smile.

          3. McWhadden*

            Just asking “what are you doing about that” isn’t even a little bit remotely helpful. It’s just a passive aggressive and rude way to tell someone you don’t want to hear their problems. That’s just not how you speak to friends.

            Saying “hey, I’m sorry I’m sympathetic but I’m trying to stay positive about this job” is fine. Because it’s *honest* it’s not passive-aggressively chiding them for being unhappy.

            Saying “I thin you should do xyz” is helpful because it’s an actual suggestion not just asking what the heck they are doing about it.

            1. LBK*

              I think if you snap and shout “so what are you doing about it!?!” at them like a Vanderpump Rules character then that’s rude, but if you ask in a way that’s genuinely encouraging them to talk about what steps they’ve taken that’s just a normal part of being a friend. People should want their friends to help them with problems, and those friends in turn should want to help with those problems. That is the whole idea of support to me – support does not mean being a dumpster for someone’s negativity.

              I find it weird how many people seem to define friendship as “complaining at each other while the other person sits in silence.” That sounds utterly miserable.

              1. Luna*

                That’s not at all what we’re saying friendship is.

                And there isn’t anything wrong with asking a question that is genuine, but the problem is the LW already knows the answer. So it won’t really be genuinely encouraging because the LW’s current motivation is to get the friend to shut up. Which is fine, but since that’s the case the LW should approach it in a more empathetic way.

                1. LBK*

                  I don’t see anything lacking empathy about trying to get the friend to think through the situation pragmatically and realize either a) that there are other things she could be doing, or b) she’s doing everything she can so she just has to keep at it, and in the meantime being negative about it isn’t going to help her.

                2. Luna*

                  @LBK But just asking “what are you doing” won’t accomplish that, and I don’t think it is even meant to. My impression from the various times that Alison has suggested it as a strategy is that it is primarily a method to shut down the conversation so the LW won’t have to listen anymore.

                3. LBK*

                  Then I think you’re interpreting it wrong, or at least that’s not how I mean it – it’s a genuine question. Are you inferring the intent is to shock them with rudeness so that they stop talking to you!? That’s not it at all, it’s meant to redirect the conversation to a place that’s meaningful.

                4. Luna*

                  “the No. 1 anti-complainer tactic and ask, “What are you going to do about it?” That may or may not nudge her into action, but it’ll definitely make you less satisfying to complain to”

                  See above, direct quote from Alison’s response to the LW. The main point of the question isn’t to get the person to act, it’s to shut them up. It might sometimes also have the side impact of getting them to act, but that is not the primary intention.

              2. Nye*

                That’s not at all what those of us who don’t like the “What are you doing about it phrasing” mean, though. Of course I want my friends’ advice – sometimes. Sometimes there’s no immediate solution, and I just need confirmation that the situation objectively sucks. McWhadden’s phrasing is what I’m looking for – sympathy or advice, depending on the situation.

                The “What are you going to do about it?” phrasing bugs because it can easily come across as a way to shut down a conversation and telegraph that you’re not interested in it. Which is perfect for a coworker (it’s polite but clear), but not a great strategy for most friendships.

                1. Tassie Tiger*

                  Yeah, I think I agree. I have a friend who will ask me “What are you going to do about it,” and while it doesn’t hurt my feelings, it does read pretty strongly to me as, “I am asserting a boundary here and letting you know I’m NOT wanting to hold your hand emotionally. I know you can do this on your own, 3 2 1 go!” And, so when he asks me “that question,” I instantly emotionally try to recalibrate into, “Okay, can’t lean on S. so much, pull back,” mode.

                2. LBK*

                  If it’s a one-time vent, sure, blow off your steam and I’ll commiserate, but I don’t want to hear about it again, especially if the situation hasn’t changed since the last time we talked about it.

                  It is also still weird to me that you think it’s wrong to telegraph (or just outright say) to a friend that you’re not interested in hearing about something. My friends don’t have carte blanche to be negative nightmares around me, and I wouldn’t expect any of my friends to indefinitely shoulder my emotional burdens.

                3. Nye*

                  It’s perfectly fine to tell a friend you’re done hearing about their issues. But you should just say it, kindly, rather than turning it back on them. That’s where some variation on, “That sucks, but let’s talk about something more positive.” comes in.

                  If you think your friends has a plan and you don’t know what it is, by all means, ask! But don’t ask just to get out of the conversation, if you already know the answer.

                4. LBK*

                  Sometimes if you already know the answer it’s less about learning and more about helping your friend put the pieces in order themselves to realize that they’re doing everything they can and now they just need to keep at it, which is something you can help encourage and support them through. But frankly, I find it pretty rare that people who complain endlessly are actually doing everything they could do to fix the problem. They complain because it feels productive but doesn’t require as much energy as actually being productive.

                5. LBK*

                  To use a real life example: I had a friend who was completely stressed out trying to decide between two job offers, so I asked him a series of leading questions to help him genuinely assess the pros and cons of each one, to think about what he values in a job and how each one aligned with those values, and so on. The purpose was just to push him past the paralysis of ambivalence and help him organize his thoughts. None of it was really new information to me or him, but it was better for me to help him come to the conclusion on his own than try to make it for him (even though I had a sense of which one I thought would be better for him).

              3. JB (not in Houston)*

                Rather than say the same thing on all your posts, I’ll just say here that I agree with all your comments on this topic.

            2. Massmatt*

              I actually agree with LBK and don’t think there is anything “passive aggressive” (a term you used twice) about what she suggested. Someone can say “That’s terrible! And what are you doing about that?” In a helpful way or a sarcastic way, LBK has explained that the latter is what she is referring to.

            3. MsSolo*

              Honestly, most people I know who’d find “what are you doing about it?” as passive aggressive would be even more offended at “I think you should do” because odds are it’s something they’ve already tried. At the very least, before offering advice you should find out what actions someone has taken, because otherwise you’re wasting both of your time telling them things they already know.

              (I’d also add the same people wouldn’t care for “but I’m trying to stay positive” because it 100% sounds like you’re chiding them for being negative. It’s a better without the “but”, but there’s still a good chance you’ll meet some hostility, because you’re being positive AT them at a time they can’t find any positives in the same thing.)

      5. Gaia*

        I don’t agree. There is a lot her friend can do to improve the situation. Her friend can seek advice on her resume and cover letter, can take a course or volunteer to gain more skills, can network, can seek other fulfilling distractions, etc.

        Wallowing and complaining solve nothing. It is a kindness to prompt your friend to think about solutions.

        1. Luna*

          Right but those things aren’t mutually exclusive. The friend can be doing all those things *and* complaining at the same time.

          1. BuffaLove*

            But she’s not – the letter says that she didn’t take LW up on her offer to help make connections, or follow up on the idea of using a recruiter. I can see how that would be frustrating for the LW, even as a friend.

            1. Samata*

              I think this is the crux of the whole thing. Listening to someone vent – even daily – is an easier pill to swallow when you know they are trying and putting an effort in to change their situation. From looking for a new job to learning to meditate in an effort to lower stress.

              Where it becomes hard to handle is the repeated complaints/woe is me combined with a refusal to make steps towards change. My impression from the letter is that this is more than venting – which every human has a right to do – and outright bitching about circumstances without taking action on any steps to fix them.

              1. LBK*

                Agreed – because then there’s a purpose to your support, giving them encouragement to keep doing what they’re doing with an end goal in sight. Listening to someone just complain with no goal is a massive energy suck that serves no purpose other than to make you both more unhappy.

            2. Luna*

              I had tons of well-meaning people giving me advice and claiming they had connections for me before I found CurrentJob. Some of it was good but plenty of it wasn’t. I don’t quite get that impression from the LW but there still could be reasons why the friend isn’t responding in the way LW thinks she should.

              1. Specialk9*

                Oh that’s a good point. Though I suspect a work peer would have more job specific knowledge than, say, one’s dad or aunt’s hairdresser. But it’s a possibility!

        2. McWhadden*

          None of those will definitely fix the problem. And certainly won’t do so right away.

      6. Kathleen_A*

        I don’t see anything condescending, in and of itself, about “What are you planning to do?” It can be said in a condescending way, of course, as can pretty much anything, but don’t get anything inherently awful about asking a person who is in a bad place what steps they are taking to get out of that bad place – particularly when they’ve been complaining about that bad place for a long time.

        1. Luna*

          In some situations I would agree- if I genuinely didn’t know what the other person’s plans were I could see asking them that. But in this case the LW knows what the friend’s plans are- to apply to other jobs. So I think in situations where you do know what the other person is doing/planning to do, it is a bit condescending to feign ignorance as a way to make the other person feel bad enough that they’ll shut up.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            Yeah, but “apply to other jobs” is an unspecific task. The OP doesn’t necessarily know what, if anything, the friend is actually doing about it. For example, the friend just seems to want OP to contact people on her behalf. Is the friend actually contacting anyone on her own about openings? Asking people for resume input? Checking her references? Doing practice interviews? This could be a good way for the OP to open up a conversation that could prompt the OP to think about what she’s doing to make “applying for jobs” happen.

            I say this because I have known people who were so stuck in a negative headspace that they thought they were actively job hunting, but all they were doing was applying for a few select jobs and shooting down any suggestions of how to find other jobs and suggestions about other jobs to apply for that weren’t* exactly* what they had in their head as what they wanted, refusing to listen to any explanation for how they were qualified for other jobs or how those other jobs were actually pretty much what they were looking for.

        2. Jennifer Thneed*

          I know someone who got exactly that question, and it kicked her in the pants to finally divorce her no-good husband.

      7. McWhadden*

        x1000 Totally condescending. And if someone feels stuck and depressed that will only make them feel more helpless.

        Not all problems are immediately sovlable. Sometimes people want their friends to listen. Now it’s totally and completely FINE to not want to be the dumping ground for negative thoughts and emotions. You can say so in the way Allison described. But don’t be the condescending jerk making them feel bad for not having fixed it all yet.

        1. LBK*

          But sometimes it’s also helpful to realize that you’re doing everything you can do and sometimes you just have to wait for things to work themselves out. The point isn’t to be critical, the point is to get you in the mindset of actually thinking about the situation critically rather than superficially.

          If my friends don’t want to actually to think about the problem or talk about it constructively they can start a podcast or get a Twitter account or something and go whine into the void. My value as a friend isn’t to just be a sponge to soak up their griping.

      8. Aeryn Sun*

        Totally agree. Sometimes people want to vent. It can get to being unhealthy or unpleasant, but if I vented about something at my job and the answer was “what are you going to do about it?” I’d be VERY put off.

        Additionally, there are certain things that can exacerbate / make doing things a lot harder for some people. I have major depression and generalized anxiety, which often leads to me having significantly less energy to do things on a day to day basis. Doing my job can often be all I can really manage in a day, and if I have to work significant overtime I have zero energy to do anything except sleep, work and occasionally eat.

        A lot of this advice is well meaning but doesn’t really apply if you’re struggling with mental illness.

        1. LBK*

          Does constantly complaining about those problems make the situation better, though? If that’s the issue then maybe the question just needs to be reframed to “what are you doing about coping with your mental illness?” And I say this as someone who spent many years struggling through mental illness but never putting in the work to actually get better until someone I cared about really pushed me to.

          1. Aeryn Sun*

            Constantly complaining, no, but venting yes.

            And people can be doing something AND still need to vent. I’m on medication and seeing a therapist AND miserable. People can be working on it and still need to vent – hell, medication often takes months to kick in and therapy is a long-term process.

            If it’s a constant thing then yes, that’s not helpful, but telling someone “what are you doing about it?” isn’t helpful either – it can just be frustrating, especially if they ARE doing something about it.

            1. LBK*

              Constantly complaining, no, but venting yes.

              In many discussions about venting on this site, this is a distinction I’ve yet to see made clear. What is the difference between complaining and venting?

              1. Massmatt*

                It’s less about a difference between venting and complaining I think than about the frequency and duration of either. Is the person occasionally having a bad day/bad week as we all do, or is the person *always* like this. Few people want to spend a lot of time with Eeyore.

            2. LBK*

              Also, if someone asks what you’re doing about it and you are doing things about it, can’t you just…tell them the things you’re doing?

              1. PhyllisB*

                Bingo, LBK. If I keep droning on about Issue and discounting any suggestions, then “what are you doing about it?” should be a wake-up call. If you ARE doing something about it, but what you’re doing is just not working, then that’s the entree into brainstorming things that WILL help.

                1. Mad Baggins*

                  +1. “What are you going to do about it” is a cue to think about actionable steps. How many best friend characters in movies have asked, “What are you going to do?!”
                  I think it can be used in conjunction with “I can see why you feel that way”/other validating phrases. I think the people who are taking this personally see more value in complaining than I do.

      9. OhBehave*

        I don’t know that Luna’s suggestion is necessarily condescending. Remember, the OP and the coworker are friends as well as coworkers. So I think this kind of thing would be difficult to process using half an ear. OP is seeing the friends work quality going downhill. It’s one thing to hear these complaints at work; but to then hear them again after work hours is wearing.

        We don’t know that friend is applying to jobs. We do KNOW that she applied and interviewed for one job the OP set into motion. Helpful suggestions from OP are going nowhere (offers to connect her to others, suggestions she find a recruiter – which removes OP from the process).

        1. There All Is Aching*

          It feels like the emphasis on friendship/condescension here is missing the fact that LW and stuck friend/coworker (SF/C) aren’t just friend friends/family/spouses/folks dating, but they work together and closely enough that LW assigns things to SF/C now and then. Which makes such a huge difference in the context of the “what are your next steps?” advice.

          Also, maybe just rewording it to “what are your next steps?” would function similarly to the objectionable “what are you going to do about it?” minus the potential for a tone of resentment or a veneer of condescension of sneaking in on LW’s part.

          Finally, maybe the “what are you going to do about it?” is hitting people here the wrong way because so few who say this put in the time to let go of the frustration/resentment and come from a place of genuine concern, and any hint of exasperation or frustration behind it kills the possibility of it resetting the convo SF/C. The good thing is that LW sounds like they’re at least not in “lash out/say whatever as a last resort” mode and are honestly looking for new things to say that might reframe this for SF/C, and that’ll make a big difference going forward.

  3. Lucille B.*

    As always, Alison’s advice is spot-on. I have had to take this approach in my personal life with my mom.

  4. Lil Fidget*

    “I’m trying to stay more positive for my own peace of mind” is a great line to use. It’s something she can’t argue back against, it’s not judgmental, and after a few repetitions it’ll be boring to hear. I suggest you use it early and often, to explain the switch from your prior willingness to listen, and then to shut down the additional attempts. Also, the more you repeat it the more you’ll absorb it yourself!

    1. Luna*

      Yes, I like this. IMO it’s much better than the “what are you going to do about that?” type of responses. I find those really condescending (especially when the LW knows that her friend has been trying to do something about it, just without success).

    2. Nye*

      I think this is a far better way to treat a friend than “What are you going to do about it?”. It is kind and probably very effective, without condescending to a friend you presumably care about.

    3. LW*

      Yes, I think I’m going to try this! :) Completely true and hopefully not something that could be taken the wrong way.

  5. Cordoba*

    I am a fan of telling people like this “I don’t want to hear you complain about this any more until you start doing new/more/better things to fix or change it.”

    I’m much more willing to be an audience for somebody’s griping when they’re actively hustling to get out of the situation that is causing them to gripe.

    If they’re just sitting in a mess and wallowing in it I don’t have enough patience or for more than one woeful conversation that give me no reason to believe it’s ever going to be different.

      1. Cordoba*

        And that seems to be not working, so it’s probably time for the coworker to try something new – even if that is just a new tactic for job hunting such as taking advantage advice and introductions that the LW appears to be offering.

        If you’re stuck in a rut I don’t see the point in staying in the rut and complaining about it.

        1. Doggo*

          This. I offered a long-suffering coworker access to some industry contacts she didn’t have and she refused. I gave up after that.

          1. Mary Connell*

            Longsuffering is a curious term that means noncomplaining. Did you mean the coworker was evidently suffering, but a complaint never crossed her lips, or was she complaining like the person in the original post, and refused to try anything to solve the problem, despite your kind offer of help?

        2. Luna*

          Sure, LW can keep offering to put her friend in touch with contacts if she wants to, or asking her friend why she didn’t follow-up with the contacts. But the reality is the LW doesn’t know everything her friend is or isn’t doing, LW only knows the part that she sees. There might be a lot more going on, or maybe there isn’t. Either way I don’t think LW needs to feel obligated to help any more, but I also don’t see why she should be overly nasty to a friend going through a hard time.

          1. Cordoba*

            If somebody’s repeated tale of woe does not include “and here are the practical steps I am taking to resolve this woeful situation” that’s all I need to know to check out on their complaining.

            Sure, they might be moving mountains in the background and is so they should mention that while we’re talking about it. But if all I get is griping I don’t have time for that.

            I don’t think it’s overly nasty to tell somebody “I’m not going to be your perpetual sounding board for problems when you aren’t doing anything about them and don’t have any new information to discuss.” That’s just setting good boundaries and articulating your own limits.

          2. MLB*

            It’s not overly nasty. This person needs a hard reality check. I’ve been miserable in jobs and had little to no hope of finding a new one before and yes it sucks royally. And having friends to support you is important. But having a “woe is me” attitude doesn’t help the situation AT ALL. LW is enabling her to continue to wallow and it’s not helping either of them.

            1. LBK*

              Yeah, I mean, many times Alison’s advice here boils down to “you either have to accept things as they are or you have to quit.” That’s not all that different from what’s going on here, where the only real options are to do something or to do nothing and whining about it is never going to change those options.

              But the reality is the LW doesn’t know everything her friend is or isn’t doing, LW only knows the part that she sees. There might be a lot more going on, or maybe there isn’t.

              If only there were a way to find out – perhaps asking the person “what are you doing about it?”

              1. Luna*

                Do you want to see her running tally of every job she has applied to? Maybe a nice Excel sheet with every detail spelled out?

      2. SDSmith82*

        The most miserable of the old coworkers was always “applying” but she would apply for things so out of the range of her experience that there was no way she would get call backs- she was in a mid level customer service role, and would be applying for senior leadership roles.

        It was her way of trying to escape but not at the same time- we were in different parts of the same field, so when I came across things that might fit, I’d refer her, but she never tried for roles she could actually get. I cut off contact when I moved/left, as I didn’t want to get sucked into that drama over and over again.

      3. Kathleen_A*

        No, the OP does not say that the coworker is “actively” applying for jobs. The OP says the coworker *has* applied, but it sounds to me (although I could be misreading the letter) as though she hasn’t done much lately except complain.

        Which is natural – she feels stuck. But she’s kind of trying to stick the OP, too, and that’s not good for anybody.

        1. LW*

          Just to clarify, to my knowledge Donna is still actively applying for jobs. I think her confidence has taken a hit though (due to both circumstances at work and not moving forward in hiring processes for the jobs she’s applied to), and she hasn’t been as active in her job search recently (though, as many have pointed out, she could be doing a whole host of things that I’m just not aware of).

  6. MommyMD*

    You have to stop enabling her. I know it comes from a place of concern but it’s making things worse. For me, I would say I know you’ve been unhappy but I’m working on keeping a positive attitude both at work and outside of work.

    You may have to scale back your friendship. Also I would not be job searching for her. You’ve done enough and she’s a grown up.

  7. San Diego*

    I have a coworker who constantly complains about not having enough money. I passed along some side opportunities to make cash and she didn’t take me up on any of them, but would announce at work that she was trying to go a

    1. Samata*

      the suspense is killing me here….

      where was she trying to go?
      did she get there?
      did she run out of money first?
      does anyone know?

      1. Panda Bandit*

        Ha, I was wondering that too. They finish the post a little downstream, just search for their name to find it.

  8. Sherm*

    Don’t give advice to a complainer. They don’t want it. They will swat it away like a fly, and you will feel resentful. If you are a “fixer” like me, it can be so hard to detach, but that’s what may be necessary to preserve your sanity.

    1. Oxford Coma*

      And the reverse: don’t complain to a fixer! I like to vent about things I can’t change, it makes me feel lighter to share. When Fergus goes full Fergus, I know I can jabber about it with Jane. Wakeen, however, can’t tolerate Not Doing Something, so I skip him.

      1. Clever Name*

        Please consider that you feeling lighter after sharing might mean that the person you’re sharing with feels heavier.

          1. MsSolo*

            I think Only Vent in Moderation is a good life policy anyway! Maybe for every vent, also have a positive conversation (even if it’s just “so, it’s not currently raining”)?

    2. Specialk9*

      Giving advice is so seldom actually welcome unless it’s specifically requested. Before giving advice, it’s helpful to ask if someone wants advice. If it’s someone you care about, a good way to ask is “I want to be supportive but I’m not sure what you want from me right now – do you want advice, or just to listen and sympathize?”

      That said, there is a huge difference between someone who processes externally (we tend to have to get the uncomfortable feelings out from inside and into the air so we know what they are, and in the process talk ourselves to a solution) vs someone who just likes to complain.

  9. Tuxedo Cat*

    I’ve bene going through this with a former work colleague and a friend. I get it (there’s a reason why I don’t recommend the place to others). Similar to the letter writer, I’ve tried to connect her to people. She encourages it but never follows up. She’s complained to me about how she didn’t like the way one of my contacts handled things, even though he was quite reasonable. I witnessed the entire exchange.

    Personally, I think she’d benefit from speaking with a therapist to help her get to a better place. I’ve mentioned it. There is just a point where you can’t save someone who won’t save themselves. For myself, it’s been harder to move on when I have to hear about my former workplace and the injustices. I get angry hearing about what’s happening and how certain people reap benefits that I never got. That anger isn’t healthy for me, and I’ve had to chose myself in the end.

    You have my sympathy, OP.

    1. LW*

      Thank you, Tuxedo Cat. I agree that therapy would probably benefit her, though I’m hesitant to suggest that route (out of concern that it could come across the wrong way).

      1. Tuxedo Cat*

        I have that kind of relationship with my friend, but I understand it’s not always an option to suggest.

        Take care of yourself. I worry about my friend and that she’s going to take all this baggage into her next job. I suspect she’s taking it into her interviews. At the same time, I can’t do anything.

  10. San Diego*

    I have a coworker who constantly complains about not having enough money. I passed along some side opportunities to make cash and she didn’t take me up on any of them, but would still announce at work that she was trying to go a whole day without eating because she couldn’t afford lunch. A coworker walked her to the grocery store and bought her a bag of groceries. She was embarrassed and said that she could have bought herself groceries, but she enjoyed complaining. She finally toned it down after that.

    Not sure what if this strategy can be applied here, but sometimes people need to understand how they sound to others.
    (Hit “submit” too soon above.)

    1. Pollygrammer*

      I had a constantly-complaining-about-money coworker too. Part of the problem with this one though was $15 daily lunches. Suggestions that cutting back on that habit might help fell on very deaf ears.

  11. AnonEMoose*

    She might be caught in an endless cycle of complaining. This might partly be driven by the grind of having to deal with a job that isn’t working for her, and her job search efforts (limited as they have been so far) not going anywhere. That kind of thing really takes a toll on a person’s self-esteem and motivation.

    Which does not mean that you are obligated to continue listening to her complain while not doing anything, OP. The posters above have given some good advice on dealing with redirecting her, shutting that down. In addition, you could also try (if you’re in a position to) reminding her of things she’s good at. That, even if her current environment isn’t working for her, she can do better.

    But that’s very much for you to decide what you want out of this situation, and how much/what you are willing and able to do.

    1. LW*

      Thanks, Moose. I like your idea of reminder her of things she’s good at. I think her confidence has taken a hit and she’s starting to doubt her strengths.

  12. Hippopotamus4Xmas*

    As I read this my first thought was that she may be suffering from some depression. As someone who deals with depression and anxiety I can tell you that sometimes I’m just not physically able to bring myself to do things (especially when it come to job searching). There’s some sort of block and I just freeze. Being unhappy in her job and knowing how difficult a process it is to search for a new one (possibility of rejection, analyzing your career and putting it down in a cover letter and resume, etc.) is probably just making an existing issue with depression worse or is what has finally brought it out.

    1. Don't need to be told what to do -- just can't do it*

      This was my thought as well, because it’s exactly where I am at this precise minute. The horribleness at work has made me depressed, which saps my energy, which makes it hard to me to actually do anything about the situation, which makes me feel stuck, which makes me depressed, which sucks my energy…blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum.

      I’ve signed up with a career coach but we haven’t gotten far because I keep collapsing into a jello-y heap instead of being the laser beam of energy I used to be.

      I’ve also managed to apply for several jobs, without success, which of course adds to the depression. It gets ugly.

      I see the situation, and know my issues, but it’s just not enough to boost me up.

      I’ve managed to avoid repeating all of this on a loop — well, externally, anyway — but I can totally see where the friend is coming from.

      1. Hippopotamus4Xmas*

        Same! I found that I just got angry when anyone would try to help by asking about a job search or checking in if I’d applied to a job that I said I was interested in. They, of course, had the best intentions but I just could not put wants and needs into any kind of action. I just went through it recently when it took me over a month to apply for a job that I really, really want. I control my anxiety and depression but it’s still there and shows itself most when I apply for jobs. I’ve been working with a career coach and it has been amazing! But you have to be in a place where you can HEAR what’s being said to you. I hate my current my job. I took it to escape a toxic job and really thought it would be a good change but isn’t at all what I thought it would be. I’m also a vocal complainer and do try to keep it to a minimum, but with depression, regret over taking this job, and fear that I’ll be judged for making a bad decision and trying to leave after just six months, it can be a struggle!

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          When I’m job-hunting, all the awful comes out and dances on my head. And if I’m not working at the time, I’m worried about money on top of everything else.

          When I can do nothing else, I try to just do 3 job-hunt things. Maybe apply for 3 jobs. Maybe only reply to 3 recruiters. Maybe only reply to 3 recruiters that I’ll say “No thank you” to, and save the rest to hope about until the next day. And if I can’t do anything, after I’ve stared at a computer screen for long enough, I say “I’m done for the day” and try again the next day.

      2. Specialk9*

        That’s interesting, like really interesting. I am generally positive to the point of being annoying, but for one 2-year job I was the complaining coworker. I’m embarrassed by it, very embarrassed, but also perplexed — why didn’t I leave? (I mean, I did eventually, I found another project, but I had this story in my head that I didn’t want the senior managers thinking badly of me.) I wonder if depression/anxiety could have played a role in it, given some stuff going on at home that I hadn’t yet recognized as problematic. That’s terribly interesting.

    2. Stuck in a Rut*

      I’m right there with you. What are the best steps to encourage someone who is affected by depression?

      1. Recently Diagnosed*

        I have several loved ones who suffer from depression and anxiety, and what I have found that works best lately is being present with them while they try to do certain things. I don’t mean being present at interviews or anything, but present when they write up emails to hiring managers, filling out job applications, contacting therapists, that sort of thing. By no means is this your responsibility, and one should never feel obligated to do this, but I have found success. When they have no energy, it seems to help when I’m able to lend them some of mine, even if it’s just long enough to talk them through something like this. I’ve sat next to my husband on interview calls, held a friend’s hand while she applied for a position…I think being present seems to lessen the anxiety.

        This is, of course, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t suffer from depression or anxiety, so I understand my insight is limited, but it has worked a few times. I always say something to the effect of “Hey, why don’t we hang at your place after work today and apply for that job? I’ll help make dinner!”

        1. Don't need to be told what to do -- just can't do it*

          You are a true gem of a friend. That is an amazing and wonderful level of support. (I’d never ask it of anyone but dang, if anyone ever offered I’d sure take them up on it.)

          1. Recently Diagnosed*

            Thanks :). It’s also worth noting that this approach may work for everyone. Know your folks, tailor it to them. Some may find that sort of offer intrusive and pressuring. But for my depression warriors, it’s worked pretty well.

            Also, DNTBTWTD–JCDI, internet hugs. Depression sucks, but I’ve never met someone who had it that didn’t amaze me with their courage, even when they felt their lowest. You’re incredible <3.

        2. Aeryn Sun*

          As someone with both depression and anxiety I’d say this is GREAT. I feel like, especially in situations like this, my depression/anxiety manifests itself where I feel very overwhelmed. Even doing day to day things like making sure I feed myself and take my antidepressant can seem like big, daunting tasks, so doing things like finding a new job can feel like it’s almost impossible. Having to talk through things like that can be a real difference.

      2. Koala dreams*

        I think the advice above is still good. When you are depressed or suffer from other problems, it’s great to have work friends to talk about lighter subjects with, it’s almost like a break from your own problems. So “I can’t be your sounding board anymore” or similar, + subject change, can be pretty nice.

        Another option is to do things that don’t require as much talking, such as just drinking a beverage together, watching tv or go for a walk. Maybe grocery shopping or cleaning. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy just to be social, then it can be nice to just hang out together. Adapt the activities to your relationship, of course.

        Lastly but not least, If you want to offer help, it’s always good to make a few suggestion to the affected person, and see what they are interested in. Not all depressed people need the same things!

    3. Observer*

      If that’s what is going on, cutting off the complaining is still the way to go, though. The complaining reinforces all of the negativity.

    4. AnxiousPerson!*

      This x1000

      I was the complainer in my last job and was definitely making everyone around me miserable but just couldn’t bring myself out of the funk! I was in such a bad place that I would go home and lie in bed and just couldn’t get myself to do a rigorous job search. It was this horrible spiral that ended with me getting fired. That ultimately ended up for the best because not being that miserable at work every day kickstarted my job search and when I got a new job I used the health insurance to get into therapy and get a zoloft prescription and I feel like a whole new person now.

      I’m not sure that’s terribly helpful to the OP, but it’s just worth mentioning it may be that there is more going on than just the friend not wanting to take her advice.

    5. Out of Office Message*

      I was going to suggest something like this, too, though not necessarily depression in particular.

      I had a coworker who was great! She’s super friendly, everyone loved her, she worked really hard, and she had rotten luck, in that everything that could go bad would go bad for her.

      But the longer I worked with her, it became apparent that while she had rotten luck, a decent number of the things that went bad for her were sometimes her fault. She couldn’t shrug off the small stuff. She’d take on other people’s problems voluntarily (job duties they didn’t do/poor personal boundaries) and then the burden would wear her down. She’d (over)react to minor or moderate frustrations, or react inappropriately.

      It got to the point where there were Concerned Boss Meetings going on behind her back about her increasing levels of emotional instability, part concern, part damage control, part “She’s been dealt a bad hand and we’ve helped her, but she’s burned off so much collateral, it’s my job or hers, and it can’t be mine.”

      There were several different mental health disorders in her family, and it got to the point where we were trying to tactfully refer her to counseling and checking in with her boyfriend (another coworker…again poor boundaries) to make sure he wasn’t being emotionally abused. She was always unhappy, and changing jobs wouldn’t help her. She had too many other issues.

  13. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I’ve done this with my mom.

    For MONTHS she had been calling/emailing/texting nonstop about a problem and needing to know what I thought she should do. I had given advice. Pointed her towards this blog. Told her exactly what I think she should do. Stayed up late counseling her. Worked with her all through my lunch. Only for every suggestion to be shot down in a flurry of excuses.

    Finally, after a phone call at six in the morning….I had had it. I told her, “I’ve told you what to do countless, countless times. I’ve displayed the shiny red button for you to press. You have two choices here: do something or don’t. But make no mistake, I will not be discussing this with you again until you’ve changed the situation.” She hit the shiny red button, so to speak, that night.

    (Granted, she’s my mom so tailor the advice to your situation…and maybe not go quite so nuclear.)

    1. Samata*

      I commented about I had to have a recent boundary setting conversation with my dad. First was like yours and pretty harsh.

      When he tried again a week later I simply said “I told you once I’m not getting sucked into this anymore and I meant it.” I hung up on him. He has made no changes, or even steps towards, but the constant woe is me has stopped – for now.

      Again, probably not something that will work with a co-worker, but it seems to have at least stopped the conversations.

  14. NicoleK*

    I’ve been in Donna’s shoes. In my case, I was aware that it was affecting my work and home life. And I did try to limit my complaining. I’d tell DH that I’d only vent for x minutes and worked really hard to stick with it. Same thing with my colleagues. I’d vent for x minutes and move on to something else. Through it all, I worked really hard on getting out of the toxic place.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah, I was glancing around nervously when OP said that this person’s disillusionment was now causing her to under-perform at her job. It’s really hard to keep on keepin’ on with those TPS reports once you’re committed to getting the heck out.

      1. rldk*

        I was very recently in this situation, and it was largely caused by a very demanding yet entirely unfocused manager. My motivation for myself to keep up my quality of work was leaving behind work and documentation that was as immaculate as possible to give the next person the best possible chance to survive the manager, and me the most freedom of mind and conscience to not respond to any of my now-former manager’s demands for further help once I left.

  15. Doggo*

    This is one of my former coworkers. We were friends outside of work, and eventually some of the team moved on because it was a terrible workplace. She constantly griped about how awful it was to be there, but refused to look for a new job. I suggested networking, getting in touch with her contacts…she wanted a better job but didn’t want to put in any of the effort. We still talk, and she still works in ToxicJob, but I’ve given up trying to help her.

    1. Irene Adler*

      Sometimes the best – and only – thing you can do is use them as motivation to move on to something better.

  16. Irene Adler*

    This isn’t as effective as Allison’s good advice. After the complainer has vented awhile, I like to ask them,”Please tell me three good things that have happened today. I need to hear about something positive.”

    It kind of irks them a bit to ask them something like this. But it does alert them a bit regarding how much their negative talk is affecting me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve actually done this with my mom! She loves to vent about things and finds it fun, but I find it stressful when she does a lot of it. So I’ve sometimes said, “Tell me something good that’s happening” and it redirects us.

    2. Canadian Natasha*

      I do this with my work friend. It does help us each encourage each other through (sometimes extremely busy/frustrating) work days. Admittedly sometimes the good things are “Nice weather. 2 hours til we can leave. It’s Friday.” but it still does help with perspective. :)

    3. Gaia*

      This is something I do with myself. I learned about it in a training course I took through Old Job. I used to be crazy negative at work (I didn’t feel fulfilled or challenged or appreciated) and it really resonated with me. To this day, anytime I’m feeling kind of meh about work (or downright ARGH) or just dreading a meeting I list (in my head, in One Note, on my notepad, wherever) 3 things that I feel happy about right then. It could be some flowers I saw on my walk in, or a movie I’m thinking of watching after work, or an upcoming holiday, or that I haven’t missed the lunch truck, or that someone said something nice to me. It can be big or little, work or not. It doesn’t matter, it just really switches my brain to a more positive place.

    4. All. Is. On.*

      My ex husband taught me how to do this! I used to complain a lot because complaining was a common thing in my family growing up, and he would always listen patiently then ask me what made me happy or excited or at least what positive thing happened that day, and now I complain a lot less because I actually retrained myself to focus on the positive stuff more than the negative!

      1. Marillenbaum*

        I had a friend who did something like that in college! When our friend group would have dinner together, he had us do “Rose, Thorn, and Bud”: you would say one thing that went badly that day (thorn), one thing that went well (rose), and a thing you were looking forward to (bud). It was really lovely, and made people feel heard and included in each other’s lives.

    5. LW*

      I think I need to do this with myself, too! As I mentioned in my letter, I’ve had my share of frustrations at this job–I’m trying to be more positive (especially after my wife had a frank heart-to-heart with me about my attitude, very much along the lines of Alison’s recommendation!), and I think this would be a nice ongoing activity.

  17. DouDou Paille*

    OMG this is my situation right now. Colleague is caught up in a cycle of misery, complaining, and unwillingness to do anything about it. The rut is real. I’ve offered resume advice, connected them with recruiters, sent job postings their way, and … crickets. Some people seem to define themselves by their misery. I gave up and just change the subject EVERY SINGLE TIME, or use the “what are you going to do about it” line. It usually works.

    1. Queen of Cans & Jars*

      “Some people seem to define themselves by their misery.” THIS. There is one person in particular at my work who I truly believe really, honestly does not want to be happy. She clearly derives way too much satisfaction from having things to complain about.

  18. Katrinka*

    This question is so timely, as I’m having the same issue with a complaining coworker/friend. I’ve had to step back from her daily phone calls of what’s gone wrong today, and I’m glad that Alison has provided a better script than my old standby of, “I’m sorry you feel that way. [change the subject]” The two of us have been working more closely on a shared project, and I’m also seeing first hand how she is not representing herself well and advocating for herself professionally.

    Part of my frustration with my colleague is that she seems to think that by staying here, in a position she’s outgrown and that she dreads, eventually TPTB will recognize and reward her for her loyalty. And as we all know, that ain’t gonna happen.

  19. Curious Cat*

    My heart kind of hurts for Donna here, she’s clearly unmotivated, stuck in a rut, very unhappy. I think let her know one last time that whenever she’s ready, you’re always happy to provide connections (if this is true), and then drop it and use Alison’s script on her performance for this current job. Hopefully Donna will start making moves to actively look for a new position so she can be doing work she enjoys (and someone who enjoys your work can fill Donna’s role instead)!

  20. All Anon*

    This was my SO (retired now so problem solved) and I guess he thought that it was my job as supportive spouse to listen and provide assurances that he was right and the MAN (insert name of boss, big boss or employer here) was wrong. At some point I realized that the it’s okay to complain and be negative thing was rubbing off on our kid. I had to start gently inserting variations of what are you going to do about it and reminding him that as awful as things seemed he’d actually been complaining for 30 years so how bad is it really. I wish I had been more assertive years ago about saying that I want to be supportive so he should speak up if he wants advice or problem solving but he also needed to respect my boundaries around remaining more positive for my own well being. I did get him to dial it down around friends and family a bit by pointing out that it was his go to in any social situation.

    1. San Diego*

      I had an ex who was Syrian. When the country descended into civil war he couldn’t stop talking about the atrocities. Just venting rage and frustration for hours every night. It was awful because there was absolutely nothing he could do to make it better and it felt unreasonable to tell him to be more positive when people were dying. But it ultimately contributed to destroying our relationship.

      1. Specialk9*

        I’m not Syrian but it’s so awful that I have found myself raging an awful lot too. If I actually knew anyone there or in the god-will-judge-us-all refugee camps? I’d lose my everloving shit.

  21. DonnaNoble*

    I’m also currently in this situation…. but the person is my husband. He is clearly in a toxic work environment, and needs to leave immediately. But despite me, our family, and even our friends telling him how awful it is, and his near-constant complaints, he never makes a move. He believes that the money (they pay well, probably to make up for the terrible company) is necessary to us and thinks that anything less won’t allow us to live or ever retire. (Mind you, he took a $25k pay increase when he took this job. We ARE able to live with a pay cut. We are both in our thirties and don’t have children.) This is just such a frustrating situation.

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      See my comment below Donna- it might help you, I’ve had this with my husband. I also suggest setting him up with a third party that’s relevant like a financial planner, job coach, or friend who works in his industry, just to talk out his job search concerns because outside perspectives can hold more weight- they don’t have a horse in the race, so to speak, so he might listen to their advice more seriously than to you (annoying but does make a certain amount of sense).

    2. Specialk9*

      What ultimatums are you willing to make? How long does he get to poison both of you for that $2,083 a month (minus taxes)?

  22. Jennifer*

    Having been this person, when someone has this conversation with me, I just shut up. Job hunting isn’t going well (or at all lately), nothing is going to change and I got the message from everyone else already about my behavior, so all I can do is be quiet.

    1. Queen of Cans & Jars*

      I feel your pain! I HATE to be the complainer, and I am VERY actively looking, but have had exactly zero luck with the job search. It is frustrating and demoralizing because I feel 100% trapped. I’m actually looking into starting my own business just so that I can give myself some hope, as well as something to talk about so I don’t default to bitching about work.

      1. Cercis*

        Yep, I’m there too. No one in my local area is hiring in my niche. I can’t move because I’m married with kids and my husband has a great job. Plus, I left my last job on less than great terms (as did the most recent person who took my position). I’ve looked into expanding my niche but doing that means taking a job that will hurt the environment and could potentially make it harder for me to find work in my field later (think similar to an organic gardener going to work for monsanto).

        I feel very stuck. I’m marginally self-employed (lost $1,000 last year, but that included attending a couple of conferences and workshops I really wanted to attend). My self-employment gig probably isn’t helping me get employed elsewhere, but it’s at least something. Luckily my husband is well employed because without his job we’d be up the creek. Of course, without his job we could consider moving …

        I love him dearly but the kid graduates next month and if I haven’t found a job locally by then, I’m expanding to a nationwide job search and he can join me or not. It’s been over 2.5 years and I’ve accepted that I’m most likely not going to get hired locally (one last position right now – I submitted the app last week). I don’t have the “entrepreneurial spirit” necessary to be fully self-employed. Jobs come up about once/year and mostly go to people with different qualifications than I have (more education but not education in the field).

        I’ve been going to therapy and it’s helped A LOT. But even with that, I’m in a field that is not friendly to women and I’ve chosen a very niche part of that (because passion). It might be easier if I didn’t have such strong ethics and didn’t care about the environment, but there it is. I can’t make myself sell out (and I accept that others who work in the area I don’t want to don’t feel like sell-outs and that’s good for them, but I know myself and know there’s no way I could do the job without truly selling out).

        1. Specialk9*

          Have you looked at applicable skills that can be applied elsewhere? I recently did a big career shift (not really willingly) and had to take on a whole new program – but it’s basically the same core skills of project management, so I’m doing fine. Sometimes it can be hard to identify core skills, or to make the case to hiring managers that this thing over here applies to that thing.

          Identifying core skills and where they can be applied: I’ve brought this up before, but my husband and friend has really good luck with Johnson O’Connor Foundation aptitude testing. In her case it helped her switch to a whole new career that she loves. For my husband, it saved us $60k in grad school loans because they said he was in a well fitting career but needed a different kind of company.

          1. Cercis*

            I’ve thought about it, but I’m really afraid to step out my niche industry. I did it once and employers still question my commitment and I’ve been told it was one of the things that kept me from being hired over another applicant. So if I do this it probably means giving up on my passion industry forever. And the thought of that makes me really sad and need to see my therapist.

            I mean, truly, the fact that I’m a woman is what is holding me back. But given employers any ammunition just means that I’ll never find a job in my industry.

            It’s something I’m working through in therapy. Figuring out if I can be satisfied with never being in my industry takes up a lot of emotional bandwidth. And unfortunately I’m not the type of person who can work for money and then spend “spare time” pursuing my passion because I tend to not have energy after working a full time job (with commute). I have about 9 productive hours each day and working a full time job with a commute takes 10-11 hours. So come the weekend I’m exhausted from pouring so much of myself into my job (I suspect that’s partly because I’m a true night owl in a lark world and never get enough sleep – going to sleep by 11pm for me is like the average person trying to go to sleep by 7pm).

            1. Truth teller*

              With due respect, it’s not because you’re a woman. It’s because you’ve defined your job parameters far too narrowly — you’re not looking outside our niche. I find it next to impossible to believe that any search outside of your current specialization will “hurt the environment.” If you’re only looking at organic farmer roles, and there’s not much demand for organic farmers, the problem isn’t your gender, it’s that you’re unwisely constricting the scope of your job search. Monsanto is not evil.

            2. MsSolo*

              I think if your niche industry doesn’t fit your working style, you do have a hard choice ahead of you. There are plenty of industries out there were working through the night would fit in, but if your industry isn’t one of them, you need to apply the a version of the Sheelzebub test – how long are you willing to be sleep deprived to support your passion? Another six months? A year? Two years? Ten? Is there anything else you’re giving up to be in this industry (like a life without the constant microaggressions of working in a misogynist industry)?

              If you can’t give up your passion, then maybe look for ways to change your niche industry to be more accommodating to people like you. Could you take a sideways step into a role where you could work against the sexism? Could you advocate for flexible working? Are there skills you could develop that would allow you to do a different job in the same industry? Organic gardeners still need marketing assistants, and IT, and payroll, and sales, and so on – you don’t have to be digging up the carrots to be part of the team.

  23. Argh!*

    I’ve been Donna & I’ve worked with Donna. I worked with a Donna who complained about management and ignored the ways he had the authority to make his own corner of FormerCompany better. I called him on that, and refused to participate. Unfortunately, by putting down the big bosses, he managed to convince some colleagues that he was brilliant, so I had to keep a distance from them, too.

    As a former Donna, I can say it’s hard to get out of the negative feedback loop when you really do have legitimate causes for unhappiness. It’s definitely up to the other half of the loop to say “I feel badly for you, but negative talk doesn’t make things better. I need not to hear this type of talk when I’m at work.”

    Jobs don’t grow on trees. I’ve been looking for years. My boss is truly incompetent and it’s affecting my income for now and in retirement. I have decided to focus on things that will add to my resume and give up on my boss. This means doing things I love more than I was when I was trying to please an impossible-to-please boss, so it’s been good.

    1. Close Bracket*

      “Jobs don’t grow on trees. I’ve been looking for years.”

      I’m sorry. I’ve been there, and it really does suck.

  24. PersephoneUnderground*

    There have been periods like this with my husband (both before we were married and since), where he kept complaining to me about a topic that he hadn’t taken any steps to do something about and I couldn’t fix for him (one of these was that he needed to quit his job). The response of course depends on the relationship and personalities involved, but with him I reached a point where I said “Look, I’m sympathetic but complaining to me isn’t getting you anywhere and is making me nuts. This topic is officially off the table unless and until it’s to tell me you’re doing something positive to fix the problem.” Since we’re obviously close, and somewhat blunt people sometimes, that worked. Sometimes he’d start and I’d have to say “ok, what are you doing about it?” and remind him I wasn’t talking about it anymore, but it worked. Also kept me from killing him :P I could see this tactic working with a close friend or one with a good sense of humor too, so wanted to share.

    Oh, and I think this did speed up the process of him actually solving the problem in several cases- he’s at a new job now!

  25. Anon for this*

    I’m in Donna’s position right now. I’ve been at a job I hate for almost 2 years and have been bad about complaining about it. It has gotten so bad that my partner often talks about me as if I’m two separate people: weekday NAME and weekend NAME.

    Some strategies that have worked for/on me:
    1) Setting a timer with my partner for complaining – i.e. setting the microwave timer to 15 minutes where I get to vent and then moving on to cooking dinner/watching a fun show/cuddling on the couch etc.
    2) My mom and others reminding me that I “don’t need to gather more evidence to know the situation is terrible for me.” When she catches me going into a spiral, she’ll just say “evidence gathering.” That’s my cue that I need to move on.
    3) Journalling.
    4) Therapy.
    5) Scheduling something fun in the future that I can look forward to outside of work.
    6) Self care, including taking a personal day if my depression and anxiety flare up badly.
    7) Having friends and family reminding me of the things that I’m good at. It’s easy when you’re in a toxic situation with bad management to feel like you’re terrible at everything. Having friends reminding me of the things that I’m good at helps.

    I’ve also used some of these strategies on other Donnas in my own life. Sometimes you really do need to protect yourself from that sort of negativity. However, please opt for honest, upfront communication like Alison has suggested. I know it really helped me realize how bad the problem had gotten.

    Mostly, I would urge everyone here to show some kindness and compassion, both towards yourselves and your own personal Donnas. It really sucks being one and, at least for me, it comes from feeling deeply unhappy, depressed, anxious, and stuck.

    1. Queen of Cans & Jars*

      “It’s easy when you’re in a toxic situation with bad management to feel like you’re terrible at everything.”
      OMG, this is so true. I’m in the same boat as you, so thank you very much for the excellent suggestions!

    2. LW*

      “Mostly, I would urge everyone here to show some kindness and compassion, both towards yourselves and your own personal Donnas.” LOVE this reminder, thank you Anon!

    3. MsSolo*

      Evidence gathering! Yes! I can’t remember if I’d heard it framed that way before, or something similar – I’ve definitely had the discussion about “you don’t more proof it’s bad to do something about it”. I think it’s a trap a lot of people fall into; they feel like they have to prove to themselves and others that it really is that bad, while still not quite believing themselves that it’s bad enough to do something about. They’re waiting for the bad thing to make something happen, to force them to take action, and because there’s no final push they get stuck in the evidence gathering phase instead.

  26. Ainomiaka*

    I’m seriously shocked at the number of comments that seem to be implying that complaining is morally wrong if you haven’t found an effective solution for the problem yet. Personally the only things I seriously complain about are things I haven’t found an effective solution for. If I can solve it, there’s no reason to complain.
    This is different from saying that LW needs to listen to it-everyone gets to decide that limit for themselves. And this is different from saying that LW should keep pushing solutions that are clearly not wanted. LW can and should say “I’ve reached the limit of what I can offer, you need another listener.”
    But it’s not morally wrong to be unhappy.

    1. Cordoba*

      I don’t think it’s “morally wrong” to be unhappy, or to complain about it in the absence of work towards (as distinct from the attainment of) a real solution.*

      I also don’t think it’s “morally wrong” to find this behavior frustrating and pointless, and to not make yourself available to repeatedly be on the receiving end of it from somebody else.

      *Exception: I do think it might be genuinely wrong to do it continually to people who live/work with you and therefore can’t opt out or get away from it.

      1. Ainomiaka*

        That’s the exact second part of my comment-LW gets to decide how much they are going to listen. Or to “not make herself available to be on the receiving end.” But that’s about what conversation topics she is or isn’t interested in. And the conversation should reflect that.

        1. Cordoba*

          Perhaps I’m misreading somebody’s comment upthread.

          Who said that it’s morally wrong to be unhappy about an unresolved problem?

          1. LBK*

            Yeah, I’m not seeing that – feels like this might be projection, that you feel you’re being judged as someone who complains.

    2. Observer*

      I don’t think anyone is saying that it’s morally wrong to be unhappy, nor even that it’s morally wring to complain about a situation that you have not resolved.

      To the extent that people are passing judgement, it’s about a situation that you are not working to solve. A major problem with Donna is that she has apparently stopped putting any real effort into solving her problem, although there are things she could try. That’s a legitimate problem.

      1. Ainomiaka*

        But why is it a problem? What Donna does isn’t something LW gets to dictate. That’s my whole issue here. The desire for control over Donna. LW doesn’t want to give advice that won’t be acted on or doesn’t have any more desire to listen? That’s fine, that’s within LWs control. What Donna talks about/does with her problems isn’t.

        1. LBK*

          I think it’s absolutely within the OP’s control to decide what Donna talks about when she’s the one Donna is talking to. You can for sure say to someone, “I don’t want to hear about this topic anymore, so if you want to continue spending time together I need you to talk about something else.”

          1. Ainomiaka*

            And I think this is the assumption that I just don’t agree with. LW can say she won’t listen anymore and walk away. But that doesn’t give her control over Donna.

            1. LBK*

              I mean, she obviously can’t literally control Donna like a robot. But she can lay out to Donna that either their conversations have to change subjects or they’re going to stop happening, and then it’s up to Donna to decide what she’s going to do. Either way, the OP does have control over putting a stop to having conversations with Donna where she talks about this, it’s just a question of what form that will take.

            2. Samata*

              no one is saying she should control Donna. She should take control of her role in the situation – and say what LBK is suggesting above. If Donna only wants to complain the OP walking away doesn’t impact Donna’s ability to still complain – she just needs to find someone else to do it to.

            3. Beth*

              She has control over *her conversations with* Donna, though. Conversations take two sides, and when a topic LW doesn’t want to hear about comes up, LW can change the subject or walk away rather than listen to it.

              1. LBK*

                Yes, precisely. The OP has enough control that listening to Donna talk about these problems is not a situation she ever has to be in again, and in that sense she “controls” Donna because she forces Donna to either leave her alone or to talk about something else when they’re together.

        2. LW*

          Ainomiaka, I’m sorry that the wording of my letter came across as me wanting to have control over Donna, as that is definitely not my intent. We’re all entitled to our own feelings and actions, and telling my friends how to live their lives is not something I’m interested in doing. :) What I do want is for Donna to genuinely be happy, for her own sake and for the sake of those around her.

    3. MissDissplaced*

      It’s a good point, and one that often gets overlooked. Why? Because with jobs, even though there are legitimate reasons to be unhappy, (bad management, etc.) we are literally powerless to change any of it except to remove ouselves by getting another job. And that is fearful and difficult to accept for many.

    4. Specialk9*

      The “immoral to complain” sounds like a strawman created by defensive people who complain a lot. I’ve been that person, I get it. But mischaracterizing our arguments in order to dismiss them isn’t going to help you.

      And we don’t think that chronic complainers are bad people, just bad company.

  27. KGull*

    I can understand some of what the complainer is feeling. I don’t complain to my coworker, but I have a couple friends that I vent to sometimes. I think having a niche job/working in a niche industry can be very stressful when you’re unhappy compared to those with lots of options. I often feel like my job doesn’t necessarily exist outside my company, and that I’d have to take a pay cut to work elsewhere. Then I think I should get additional training or skills so I have more options, but I don’t know what other skills would be genuinely worth the time and potentially the money if I don’t use them at my current job. Then I think I should get a side job, and then… It can get overwhelming. Your coworker may be letting her work slide because on some subconscious level she knows she needs work to either reprimand her or fire her in order to force her to make a change. You having a conversation with her might be enough of a push.

  28. chocoholic*

    I have done this with my kids and husband when they are ranting about something, and I have finally figured out that, at least with my son, that often he does not want me to solve it, he just wants me to listen. I have said “that sounds frustrating for you” in an empathetic tone of voice. He has softened then and nods yes, and is then more in a place to talk about it. I haven’t offered anything in terms of solutions because he hasn’t asked, but maybe that is an idea. It is possible that this has already been suggested and I missed it, but in case not, there you go :)

  29. Menacia*

    I had a coworker like this, he was not willing to do anything to change his situation, and ended up doing something really stupid at work, and got canned…problem solved…I guess?

  30. Victoria*

    I had an emotional vampire working with me once. I’d come in to work in a good mood, cheerful and smiling, then after an hour of listening to her I’d be depressed as hell.

    We ended up letting her go when we had to cut a position in the department, and the reason she was chosen was that she was making everyone around her miserable.

  31. knitcrazybooknut*

    Yikes, Donna’s my actual name, and I thought for a moment this was about me! Luckily I’ve not gotten to quite this level in my complaining with anyone except perhaps my therapist. Anyway, taking steps is really important, and while it’s tough to do, we need that jolt sometimes of someone giving us that feedback and saying they can’t handle anymore.

  32. Manager-at-Large*

    Sometimes, depending on the relationship, you can just ask “Are you venting or do you want to float ideas to change things?”. If the answer is “I’m just venting” – sometimes that is enough to bring down the level of negativity. I’ll admit I’ve thought of saying “ok, you’ve got the next 10 minutes to vent – then we do something else” but I haven’t had the nerve.

    I have a friend who wants to vent about current political events or news All The Time these days – some days I can hear it – some days I can’t participate.

    1. Specialk9*

      Oh hey that’s not kosher. Nobody gets to non-consensually drag us into 2018 news. That’s not ok. You get to create that boundary hard and defend it. Each of us gets to decide how much of the filth we are going to tune into, and nobody gets to spray that around without permission.

  33. NW Mossy*

    I just want to say the framing that Alison uses in this response and another recent one (the one from a manager about an underperforming writer) of “you can’t care more about someone else’s job than they do themselves” has really struck a chord with me. It’s a very succinct way of capturing the idea that it’s reasonable and sensible to release yourself from the responsibility for other people’s outcomes, especially if you’ve already offered appropriate help. They may still fail and they may still blame others when that happens, but you don’t have to accept the weight they’re trying to transfer to your shoulders.

    1. Samata*

      This really stuck with me too. I have a note on my desk that says “You can’t care about someone else’s circumstances more than they do” as a reminder to not eat so much of other peoples stress.

  34. Agent Diane*

    I want to tape this up on several desks in one of my offices. It’s when someone is a broken record, and having that same conversation multiple times in a day…

    I can’t shut them down so I’m taking headphones with me.

  35. Rick*

    Note that this is also very likely affecting how prospective employers view her. Complaining about a current employer is a huge red flag, and if she’s complaining this much with you, she’s probably doing it in interviews, too.

    While the grievances may be legitimate, employers want to know you’ll handle decisions you dislike gracefully.

  36. AKchic*

    You now have a Negative Nancy who only wants to complain and “vent” but not actually take any control over her life and make any real changes. She is comfortable where she is at. She knows the routine, the people, she has a work-therapist (you)… she has it all.
    Stop being her therapist/sounding board. It may take a very frank/blunt conversation of “okay, you’ve spent X months complaining of the same problem and you haven’t done anything to change your situation. Until you actually make changes, I’m not going to listen to this anymore. We’re changing the topic. Have you seen the latest episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead?”

    Having worked with Negative Nancy types before, I can tell you, they are a drain. Sometimes its because they are burned out. Sometimes its just their “process”. Other times its just who they are. Once in a while, its a phase because of something else and this is what they are focusing on because they don’t want to think about the “worse” thing they are trying to avoid (maybe a family health crisis). Who knows. It doesn’t matter. What matters is shutting the negativity and complaints down so the office atmosphere isn’t as dismal.

  37. Beth*

    If the person I’m talking to is talking in good faith (as in, they’re actually feeling stuck and want to change but are having trouble processing how to go about that), I find that responding to complaints with something like “Wow, that sounds rough. What do you think you’re going to do about it?” can actually help. It walks them through the process–for some people, for whatever reason “I am upset” doesn’t intuitively lead to “And therefore I should change something”, and leading the conversation in that direction can actually make a big difference.

    But not all complaining is in good faith! Sometimes the complainer is looking for attention/validation, or they know they’re not ready/willing to change things but want someone else to support the burden of putting up with the status quo, or they’re just a complainer no matter what their situation is like, or they’re . If one or two attempts to lead the conversation in the direction of change don’t work, it’s probably not going to suddenly start working ten chats down the line. That’s a good time to cut your losses, either by explicitly telling them you don’t want to talk about the topic anymore, or just by changing the subject or bowing out when it comes up.

    1. LBK*

      Very well said. I like this line in particular:

      Sometimes the complainer is looking for attention/validation, or they know they’re not ready/willing to change things but want someone else to support the burden of putting up with the status quo

      A lot of complaining boils down to trying to garner someone’s approval for not having put in the work to make your situation better, and if that’s the case then you don’t need to stand by the person for that.

      It’s interesting that often when venting has been discussed here, people defend it by saying it’s how they end up solving problems, and yet a lot of the comments here seem to be saying that just because you’re complaining about something doesn’t mean you want help solving it. Once again, I find myself at a loss for understanding the purpose of venting, aside from what Beth outlines above (ie validation).

      1. Specialk9*

        I’m going to guess you’re one of those people who processes internally. Lots of us process verbally, and unknown bad feelings build up inside until we get them out. That release is what complainers are looking for.

        1. LBK*

          Ha – trust me, my therapist would tell you that I absolutely do not process internally. But when I speak about something it’s with purpose and I work through things as I talk about them so that I feel I’ve actually reached some kind of resolution, at least emotionally. If you’re actually able to reconcile with something emotionally by the end of a rant, then that’s great, but I don’t find most venting actually goes anywhere. It’s just a rehash of a series of events and nitpicking/hanging on certain details, without actual self-analysis to understand why particular things irk you so much and how you can mentally reframe the situation to try to work through it.

          In other words, when most complainers go on their rants, my experience is that they aren’t actually “processing” anything. They’re just letting out the feelings, but those feelings don’t change after. It’s a very temporary feeling release with no permanent shift in emotional state as long as those same stimuli they were complaining about persist.

      2. Argh!*

        I need validation where I work. Sometimes I feel like my boss is gaslighting me. When I tell people what she’s said to me, those with more experience in the work world or in HR are shocked. I will thank them for listening and I try not to bend their ear too much. I just need to check in with people who have both feet in the real world.

        1. LBK*

          But there’s a difference between a reality check and a vent. People here are saying that when they release all this negativity, the only response they want is “Wow, that sucks.” Which I guess if that’s enough to verify for you that you’re not going crazy, then that’s fine, but usually for me if I’m really looking for perspective to ensure I’m interpreting a situation correctly, it’s a more involved conversation than that.

  38. OH MY GOD*

    I had a Donna in my life. She didn’t like her job when we were colleagues. She didn’t like her job before that, and the one before that, and the one before that. After she left the workplace where we met, she would complain to me via texting about her new job. Most of the time I just ignored her complaints, but now I wish I had called her out on it. It’s one thing if you happen to be at a toxic workplace, but if you don’t like ANY of your jobs… I think the issue is with you.

    1. Specialk9*

      Yeah that’s important. Sometimes it’s the job; sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s a weird confluence of you and that particular job.

    2. Jennifer*

      I have a friend who hates all her jobs, but it sounds like that’s usually because of the people in her industry, which is notorious for douches.

  39. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

    Two jobs past I used to give a co-worker a ride home. She spent the entire trip complaining about work. Any suggestion I made was immediately rejected out of hand as unworkable. I got home so tired and depressed from listening to her that my evenings were ruined. I stopped giving her rides for the sake of my mental health. I heard from a mutual co-worker that she is still the same, complaints with no action. I developed a new policy. I make three suggestions to anyone complaining. If they reject all three I no longer engage with them.

  40. selenejmr*

    I had a co-worker like this…..and I was dating him. He’d always complain about work, the amount of the work load, the pay, etc., but he would never do anything about it. A year or so after I left the company there was an opening in our field that I told him about, but he made no moves to apply or develop a resume. I had to create the resume for him. I don’t think he really wanted to leave the company, despite all of the complaining, since he’s still there. Perhaps it’s too far out of his comfort zone to look anywhere else. (It’s the only job he’s ever had and he’s been there ~29 years.)

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