Cheri Huber, a Northern California–based Zen teacher and author of some 20 books on mindfulness and compassion, suggests that the best way to handle a beloved complainer is to gently redirect conversations so they emphasize your emotional bond.
“This is someone you care about, so of course you don’t want to tune them out or get angry,” she says. “But you don’t want to get caught up in their negativity either.” It may be tempting to bond on shared negativity — political complaints, for example — but this blocks the chance of a closer, more positive connection.
Huber recommends a three-step process. First, assure your friend that you’re listening. “You listen to their complaint and say, ‘You know, I hear you. I really do.’ You’re not saying, ‘I agree with you.’ You’re simply saying, ‘I hear you,’ and you’re expressing real sympathy and understanding.”
Then comes redirection, which conveys even more closeness. “You can say something like, ‘When we’re talking about that, I don’t feel like we’re really here together, and I really want you to be here with me, and me with you.’”
The point is to focus on the value the relationship has for you. “I’m actually challenging myself,” Huber says. “Because if you’re negative, and I get negative about your negativity, well, we’ve gone from one to two negative people!”
Redirection is most effective if you follow it with a third step: suggesting something else to talk about, something personal that connects the two of you.
“You share something about yourself that’s indicative of the kind of intimacy that you’d like the two of you to share,” Huber advises. That could be a hope or a problem — just not a complaint. Have some of these topics in your back pocket before you meet with your friend.
This approach can help you become more aware of when the conversation is veering away from connection and toward complaint. “At that point,” she says, “it can actually be fun for either of you to roll your eyes, say ‘Here we go again,’ and change direction to something positive.”
If this process doesn’t work, you may have to reassess the relationship. If your efforts don’t succeed, they can still be valuable for you. “After all, the process is also your attempt to be a person who wants to be positive in your relationships,” she notes. “Can you do that?”
This originally appeared as “My dear friend is a real complainer. How can I stay present in conversation without joining him in the negativity?” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.