transcript of “my coworker is unbearably negative”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “My coworker is unbearably negative.”

Alison: Being around negative people that complain all the time can be exhausting, and when that negative person is your coworker and you’re trapped in an office with them, it can be really draining not to be able to get away from this constant flow of complaints. And that is the situation that today’s caller is in. Hi, and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, thank you for helping me, Alison.

Alison: Well, let’s see. You have a pretty intractable problem here, so we’ll see if you still feel that way at the end of the show. So you have a coworker who is incredibly negative. She’s a bookkeeper who comes in a few times a month and she shares an office with you when she does, and she complains constantly about life and about work. And to really paint a picture here in your letter to me, you wrote that her negative rants go on and on to the point that, to quote your letter, “I want to take a shower from the negativity in the room. When she leaves I open windows and vacuum and play happy music. I’m not exaggerating.”

Guest: Nope.

Alison: You also wrote, “I feel like this is a non-consensual therapy relationship and she just expects me to be her therapist.” And you’re looking for a way to set boundaries with her and maybe talk to her about the negativity without hurting her feelings, or at least in a way that is socially acceptable to say. Am I getting all that right?

Guest: That is exactly right. And you know I should say, because the letter was written in a point of frustration, that she is a lovely person overall. I mean, she has such a great heart and she’s such a great human being. It’s just that her mindset is so negative that some stuff comes out. And so part of the reason I just really don’t want to hurt her feelings or I want to be more socially conscious of her just because, you know, she is lovely — just hard to be with.

Alison: It’s really draining, I think, to be around someone who is just so negative and it’s especially hard at work where you need to focus and you’re this trapped captive audience who can’t just walk away because you’ve got to sit there and try to work. How long has this been going on?

Guest: I’ve been with this company for almost three years, and it’s twice a month for three years. She’ll come in for a couple hours twice a month, which thankfully it’s not every day. If it was every day I don’t know if I could have stayed with the company, but twice a month is, yeah, it’s a while.

Alison: Yeah. Well, yeah, it’s a blessing I guess that it’s only twice a month, but if it’s really intense, I bet it feels like a lot. What kinds of things does she complain about?

Guest: Oh my gosh. I mean it can go from something that’s going on, sometimes it’s just sharing something in her life with her marriage or her household or guests coming in to stay or her recent trip. And sometimes it’s just local news in the area, sometimes it’s national news. I mean it’s pretty much, if a conversation topic comes up, it’s going to go in a negative direction. Occasionally I’ll find a couple safe topics that it’s only semi negative, where it’s not as bad, but sometimes she can get so worked up on stuff that she’ll get emotional even over stuff, which can be really hard to deal with when I’m trying to take calls or handle stuff at work as well.

Alison: Fascinating. I feel like I’ve had a few people like this in my life, maybe not to this extent because as we get into the details that you shared in your letter, I think it really sounds a lot worse than the way chronic complainers usually present. I think in general it’s so unpleasant to be around, but the thing that is fascinating to me is that for the complainer, a lot of the time it doesn’t seem to be unpleasant to them at all. It’s almost like they get some kind of enjoyment from the complaining, but it’s not clear why. To some extent, I kind of think maybe they just have a different tolerance for unpleasant conversation.

A really minor example of this is that my mother loves to complain about frustrating customer service experiences. I don’t know why that’s her thing, but she loves it and she takes real joy in recounting in great detail the frustrating conversation that she had with the phone company or with the plumber. And when I say she takes joy in it, she really seems to love it. I guess that it’s venting, but with her it seems like a form of storytelling that she finds interesting and entertaining, but which I find highly stressful to listen to. I mean, I have my own annoying customer service experiences and I don’t need the stress of anyone else’s. And she especially likes to call me after I’ve had a really long and stressful work day and launch into these lengthy diatribes. I eventually had to ban her from doing it because it really does stress me out. And I think she was baffled by that because she doesn’t find it stressful. She’s entertained by talking about it, so she can’t relate. So I wonder is is your sense that your coworker is sort of a happy grump in that way? I mean, I don’t know that it changes the advice.

Guest: Yeah, that’s totally right. That’s exactly what’s up. I’m glad you pinpointed that because yeah, that’s exactly it. And I love that too because it’s always when you’re like, you know, I really didn’t need this today. I’m working on my own stuff here. I love your story about your mom there. That’s awesome.

Alison: I do think there are some people where they’re not a happy grump, their energy is just all dark clouds, totally aside from the actual content of what they’re saying. But then there are these people who really do seem to take a lot of pleasure in the negative stuff that they’re sharing.

Guest: Yeah, absolutely.

Alison: Fascinating. Now when you said before that it feels like she wants you to be her therapist, is she also trying to get you to talk through her problems with you or does she just want someone to listen?

Guest: Well, what’s interesting is that she treats it like she wants me to talk through it with her, but she doesn’t actually want that. What will happen is when we are talking, she’ll just start on a monologue about something, like maybe she had an argument with her husband the night before. So she’ll just be like, “Oh, my husband sucks.” And then she’ll just start arguing, saying like, “We had this argument, he’s so annoying,” and all of that. And she’ll try to get my confirmation. She’ll be like, “Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t that the worst?” And sometimes I’ve tried where I’m just like, “Sure, yeah.” And then I just changed topics. I do a lot of body language that’s like, I’m not interested in hearing more. Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know. It sounds like he’s right.” I’m just finding any way to change the subject. Sometimes I just change the subject, but if I’m asking her outright, “Well, what did you do? How did that happen?” She’ll just start talking worse about it. I don’t know how to explain it completely, but it’s almost like she wants my confirmation about how terrible it is, but she doesn’t actually want me to help her with the problem and she just wants to vent.

Alison: Yeah. As you’re saying it, I’m thinking how funny it would be if you actually just doubled down on the negativity. I don’t actually recommend this, but I wonder what would happen.

Guest: There was one time where we were talking and she was complaining about some people who were visiting and they’d been there for way too long. They were just kind of staying in her house and she’s not very good at setting boundaries with people. And so what was happening is these people were just staying at her house and she’s like, “My husband’s just telling me that I should just tell them to leave.” And I was like, “I agree with your husband. You need to tell them to leave.” And she just had a huge argument with her husband over this and she just kind of gave me this startled look, and then she just kept going, talking about how terrible it is that they’re there. And I’m like, “All right, I’m going to go file stuff. All right then.”

Alison: Yeah. It really does make me wonder though, what would happen if you were like, “Yeah, your husband is a huge asshole.”

Guest: Oh my gosh, right? I think she’d just be like, “Yeah, I agree with you.” And then she’d tell me more stories about it. And I don’t want to keep this going.

Alison: All right. Fair enough. It amuses me to think about it though. Let’s talk about what you have tried to do, because I know from your letter that you have tried a whole bunch of different strategies and none of them have worked. So will you run through what you have tried so far?

Guest: Absolutely, I can do that. One thing I’ve tried is finding some certain safe subjects that work, like food for example. We can talk about food. I’m vegan and she’s fascinated with that, so we talk about that sometimes. She’ll tell me about a restaurant she went to. The complaining is minimal there so it makes it less negative, but there’s no positive subjects with her.

Sometimes I make sure I’m really busy with other things — there’s certain work that I can’t do when she’s there, so I just save up the work that I have to do when she’s there, which works okay. But sometimes she just monologues in between. Like I’ll make a phone call and I’ll get off the call, then she’ll just monologue at me for a little bit while she’s working.

Or she’ll just talk to herself. If I’m going and filing in the other room, she’ll be like complaining about the work she’s doing or like, “Why does he do this? What’s this?” They’re rhetorical questions that sound like she actually wants me to like jump in, but she doesn’t. And I have to keep checking because I kind of need to know what she needs.

Sometimes I take a lunch when she’s there, though I’m not able to do it all the time.

I told you about just disagreeing with her, like, “My husband should just tell them to leave.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I agree with your husband.” She just kind of moves on.

The big thing is the thing where she’ll be complaining, I’ll say, “What are you going to do about that?” And she’ll go, “I don’t know.” And then she’ll continue to rant and sometimes she’ll just rant about how she doesn’t know what to do, but she doesn’t actually want to know what to do. She just wants to complain about how she doesn’t know what to do. And then sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, I can’t talk right now. I need to do this work.” And then like I said earlier, she just does the little comments. She’ll be working and she’ll be like, “Why does he work it this way? Why does this happen this way? What’s this supposed to be?” And I don’t know what I’m supposed to jump in on and what I’m not. So I’ll just be listening to her talking in the other room and then she’ll just yell my name and I’ll jump in and I’ll be like, “Oh right, sorry, wasn’t listening.”

Alison: One of the things that was so fascinating to me about your letter is that you have already tried the things that I would normally suggest that you try and that in most cases would have some effect on the person, but she is impervious to all of the normal things that you would try in this situation. The thing about asking her “So what do you plan to do” about whatever negative thing she’s complaining about sometimes can work really well — I mean, clearly not here — but sometimes it will get the person out of venting mode and honestly, sometimes the reason it works is not because it actually shifts them into action mode, but because it makes you an unsatisfying person to vent to. Because if someone just wants to vent and if they keep hearing in response, “So what are you going to do about it?” often they will take their venting somewhere else because you’re no fun to vent to at that point. But that apparently did not work with her.

Guest: I learned that from you Alison. That’s why I did it, but I just made it worse.

Alison: See? My advice has let you down. This is terrible.

Guest: It works in other areas too. It’s worked before. Just not with this particular person.

Alison: Okay. See, she’s very tricky. It’s interesting. I do think there are a couple of different options that you can still try. Let’s talk more about this strategy of being busy with work while she’s there. If you directly say, “I can’t talk now, I have to focus on work,” she just starts talking out loud to herself, right?

Guest: Yes, exactly.

Alison: When that happens, have you ever tried saying, “Hey, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to focus over here. Can I ask you not to talk to yourself while I’m working?”

Guest: I have not asked her to do that.

Alison: Would you feel comfortable doing that? Because I think it’s a reasonable thing to do, but I also know that it’s the kind of thing that some people feel awkward about doing.

Guest: I think she would be really annoyed with me, but I’m kind of okay with that. So, I’d be comfortable asking her to be quiet. It’s funny, I haven’t even really thought of doing that, but yeah, I could definitely ask her, “Hey, could you not talk to yourself?” That would probably help. She might even do it. She might just be really annoyed in the process, but I mean, I’m okay with that.

Alison: Yeah. I think to get any of these to work, you may have to accept that she’s going to be a little annoyed with you, but that’s okay. Her being annoyed with you is not the worst thing in the world. You’re really annoyed with her right now.

Guest: That’s true!

Alison: So let’s spread this out a little bit. I think often people don’t think to just be very direct about that, because when someone is already acting in a way that is outside the bounds of the social contract that we normally have with each other about what is and isn’t okay behavior — what she’s doing is sort of outside those bounds — it can be hard for the other person, you in this case, to even know what to do, because this person isn’t playing by the same rules that you’re used to people playing by. So I’m not surprised that you haven’t thought, “Oh, I could just ask that.” But I would try that, say, “Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve got to focus over here. Can I ask you to not talk while I’m working?” And then if she starts back up — and she might, because I suspect it’s deeply ingrained habit with her — you can remind her. You can say, “Jane, I really need to focus on what I’m doing. I’ve got to ask you to stop doing that.” And you can be nice about it. It can sound fake exasperated or whatever tone works for the relationship. You might need to do it a few times in order to train her. Maybe even more than a few times. But I bet if you did it enough, it would eventually help.

Guest: That’s a good point too. And you know, it’s interesting as you’re saying this because she’s been doing this for a couple of years. I’m kind of wondering if maybe a big picture conversation before that might be helpful, to talk to her about it. And sometimes, honestly there’s times where I don’t have as much work to do when she’s there because I’m still waiting on her. So there are going to be times where that won’t be the case, but while I’m working, maybe she’ll be able to calm down, or I can save up work then and do it more when she’s around. I kind of love that. And maybe even just something… as you’re saying this, I’m just thinking of, “Hey, sometimes when you’re talking out loud to yourself, I get distracted. Would you mind just not talking out loud to yourself like that? It’s really hard for me to focus.”

Alison: That’s perfect. It’s polite. She may still be annoyed, but any outside observer looking at that would say that’s a perfectly reasonable polite request. It’s a place of work, you know? There’s requests that we have to make of each other sometimes. I like the idea of you doing that kind of big picture, “Hey, sometimes this is distracting.” And then in the moment if it’s continuing to happen, you can say,” Hey, I’ve got to ask you to rein that in or hold that down.” And she’ll have that framework that you’ve already set up of understanding what you’re asking.

Guest: I kind of love that. It also makes the problem that she’s talking and not how negative she is. Because I’m not going to change that about her, but I can have her talk less, which is an improvement.

Alison: Yes, absolutely. And I want to talk a little bit more about worrying that she might be annoyed, because I think so often that constrains people in shoes similar to yours where people feel like: “I’ve exhausted all the things that I feel polite saying. The person is still engaging in the problematic behavior, so now I’m out of options.” But I think sometimes to get this kind of thing to stop, you have to get creative and not feel constrained by the same etiquette that you would follow with someone behaving more normally. And it’s possible she won’t even find it rude because clearly she’s not using the same etiquette playbook as most people.

Guest: True. That’s a good point.

Alison: Even if she does think it’s a little rude or something, that’s okay. I mean, it’s not like you’re calling her a jerk. You’re telling her that you need to focus on work and you’ll be doing it more assertively than you have previously, but again, the reason for that is that her behavior is so out of the norm. So I think it’s okay to do something that doesn’t feel perfectly polite here because she’s created a situation where you’re sort of forced to. None of that is to say that what we’re talking about isn’t polite. The sort of conversation that you’re proposing is very polite. I think where you might start feeling less polite is if you have to do those follow up reminders where you’re like, “Hey, you’ve got to keep it down over there.” But that’s really okay to do.

Guest: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

Alison: Now if that doesn’t work — because I want to be realistic that she so far has seemed immune to all reasonable tactics — one other thing, are headphones an option? You could explain at the outset, “Hey, I’ve started wearing headphones because they help me concentrate,” and then maybe you could just play music and block her out while she’s there.

Guest: That’s something I would have done except that it’s just not an option where she is, because I have to take calls, so I switch desks and all my music and anything I would normally play. I’m very fortunate. I get to work alone a lot of the time, so I play music all the time in the office, but I don’t get to do that when she’s there.

Alison: Got It. Okay. It might be that at some point you’ve got to figure you can cut down on some of this by telling her directly, but that there’s always going to be some that you can’t get away from if you need to interact with her. But taking it from, if it’s a 10 now, taking it down to a four would probably still be a huge improvement in your quality of life, right?

Guest: Yeah. Especially because it’s only twice a month. Ten to a four, I can work with the four.

Alison: We were talking about addressing it head on about the talking, but I think potentially you could also address the negativity. I would start with just the talking piece of it and see where that gets you. If that gets you down to a four, then great. But if it doesn’t really take care of the problem and there’s still lots of negativity being exuded into your space and you want to talk about the negativity, in theory… I’m hesitating here because if you were around her daily, I would say to definitely do what I’m about to advise. Since you’re not, I don’t know that it’s worth it, but in theory at some point you could say something to her like, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize how often you vent here about things that you feel really negatively about, but it’s a lot and it can be really tough to work around that. I try to keep a more positive energy in here and always being so negative is making my own job unpleasant.” But you know, as I’m saying this, I feel like it’s maybe too much for someone who’s just in there a few times a month.

Guest: It might be, although it could help if she gets really on a roll, where she’s really getting negative, I can stop and say, “Hey, you know, we’re kind of trying to work here and this is getting into a really negative space. And I totally get that you’re in pain, you have stuff going on, but you know, maybe you need to go and figure out…” I don’t want to say “go get professional help,” but find a way to say, “Hey, if you need somewhere to vent like this, this is not something that I’m trained to do.” And I can say it like that even, and she’s probably going to hate that. But if she’s feeling the need to come and have a non-consensual therapist, maybe she needs a real therapist, which she does not have. So that might be something to say, but I think that’s something I would need to be really careful with, and it’d be about timing especially. So I don’t even know that I would say it. But that might be something to just have ready to go in my mind.

Alison: Yes I love so much about what you just said. I think the wording itself is really good and that sort of general concept, and also your point about timing is exactly right. But thinking it through beforehand, thinking if there ever is an opening to say this, how do I want to say it? Then if there is that opening, you’re ready to go and you’re not just winging it. Because I think with these trickier conversations, if you do just wing it in the moment, sometimes it comes out really differently than how you wanted it to. So I think that’s great. And I think there’s a less formal option two, which is just like, “Jane, I can’t handle the negativity today and I’m banning you from negative topics while you’re here.”

Guest: Oh, I love that. That would be good. Because she’d probably laugh and then we’d be over it and then if she gets negative, I’d be like “Hey!”

Alison: Yes. Exactly.

Guest: I kind of love that. That might help too.

Alison: So you could try that — and that doesn’t make it a big thing, like now I’m having this serious conversation with you. You’re just kind of throwing it off and it’s hard to argue with that — what’s she going to say? “No, I will talk about negative topics while I’m here”?

Guest: I love that. That would probably make a huge difference.

Alison: Oh good. Okay. So there’s something to definitely try. And really, if you do say it and then you feel kind of rude having said it, it might get through to her where nothing else is, and again, she’s the one who’s being rude here. You don’t need to dance around it out of politeness.

Guest: Yeah. And it might be helpful to have a place that she goes twice a month where instead of just venting, it becomes like a happy place to go where we just have fun. And I imagine she doesn’t have… I know that a lot of friends don’t spend a lot of time with her because of this. This is her whole life. So maybe just having twice a month where we can have fun might be good for her.

Alison: And I suspect you will have to do those reminders a bunch — I don’t think you’re going to say it once and it’s going to be solved. I think you’re going to have to keep it up. But if you can do it in kind of a fun joking way where it doesn’t feel like a personal attack, you’re just like, “Hey, we’re negativity-free in this space today,” maybe it’ll work.

The other stuff I wanted to mention to look at is just whether there are changes that you can make to the physical environment. Do you have to be in the same space as her? Does she have to come into the office at all? That sort of stuff.

Guest: In terms of changing the physical environment, my boss is very understanding and I’ve done a couple of things in that area that wasn’t in my original list that I sent you. He’s so supportive of this. When I first came in, there was a point where he noticed that I was — because sometimes he’ll send me on errands out of the office — where I was kind of asking, “Hey, do you have any errands?” right before she’d come in. And he kind of picked up on that and he was like, “How do you like working with Jane?” And I’m like, “Oh, well, it’s kind of tough.” He’s like, “Try again.” I’m like, “She’s one of those negative people I’ve ever met.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I totally get that. I’m the same way.” And so he actually, if he has something for me to do, he usually tries to set it for when she’s around to have me go out. And that’s kind of why I’ve taken lunches there too, because it gives me a break.

But she has to come in the office and the way that it’s set up is the same, though I’m really fortunate that there is an angle where I could be talking to my boss too. Even just last week I went on a break and he needed me to do something as I was coming back from my break and he was on the phone with me outside of the office and he was like, “I can hear in your voice, you’re frustrated. Take a longer break. Don’t go back to the office until half an hour from now.” Just gave me a free paid break. And basically it was like, “Just don’t worry about it.” And he’s very good about paying attention to work-life balance that way and just is like, “Don’t worry about it, it’s cool. That way you can be in a good space by the time she leaves.” And he was totally helpful. So that’s probably the closest thing to changes that can be made.

Alison: Got It. I like your boss, at least in this story.

Guest: Yeah, he’s great. He’s awesome.

Alison: Yeah. If she were daily and you were having to do this daily, I would be really curious about why he keeps her on because I would say this is worth changing bookkeepers over, but I can kind of see it if he doesn’t have that much interaction and you’re only dealing with her a couple of times a month.

Guest: She’s a great bookkeeper. She’s technically fantastic and she doesn’t interact with anybody but me. She’s pretty great.

Alison: (Laughs) It’s good for everyone else then, just not great for you.

Guest: He always calls. I’ve noticed he has one phone call he makes to her every time she comes and he listens and talks to her and she’s done the same thing with him on the phone with me right there. I’ll hear it. And yeah, he does one, and then he’s done. And he doesn’t pick up calls from the office except if he knows I’m in there (laughs). So I think he has the same problem.

Alison: People are very strange. So that’s basically my advice. Under ordinary circumstances I would have a lot of confidence in it except that because you have tried all of these other very logical things to try without success, I am less confident in it than I normally would be. But I think that because this is about really directly telling her, “Hey, I need you to cut this out,” maybe it’ll go better than the previous things have.

Guest: Yeah. And I said even before we started recording that if the answer to this was, “There’s no option here, you’re just going to have to deal with it twice a month,” it’s fine if that’s the result because I totally get this is really a more difficult situation. But I feel like what you’ve given me is really helpful because it’s something that can at least make it better, which is totally great because it is only twice a month and I can always bring it from a ten to a four and that’s doing to make a huge difference.

Alison: Good. And I think that’s a healthy attitude to have about it — let’s manage our expectations.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you for having me. This was so helpful.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to podcast@askamanager.org – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at askamanager.org, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.