Dealing With Difficult People

5 tips on how to set boundaries to handle whiners.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #194

Dealing With Difficult People

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We all like to be helpful! Co-workers, friends, and family members sometimes turn to us for help, and we like to help when we can. There's only one problem: sometimes they seem to be asking for help, but they're really looking for a chance to whine.

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 Whiners are a problem. They're victims, victims whose whining feeds the gaping void in their souls. They're coming to you because they want to connect with someone who won't make them more of a victim. And once they connect, they suck out your morale and energy with their constant complaining. You grow pale and shrivel under the onslaught, while their cheeks grow rosy and their souls sing, feasting on your precious life force. Plus, they're wasting your time.

This weekend, I spent time with Kelle Sparta, whose business is all about promoting love in the world. And love is the opposite of whining.

Kelle deals with whiners by using the "15 minute rule." It's a great way to set a boundary while still treating a person honorably.

Tip #1: Listen to the Whining—Up to a Point

When a whiner shows up, let them have their time in the sun. Or rather, in the muck of negativity that is their life. Since they're a relationship you presumably want or need, look at them and think, "This is someone I want to be around, and they're sharing what's important to them." Open your heart, mind, and ears, and listen. That's the "love" part.

Let this go on for 15 minutes. You can shorten or lengthen the time depending on the issue. If their pet Akita recently plunged to its death from a 23rd story balcony, that trauma may deserve a full half hour. If they have a paper cut from depositing their $10,000 weekly allowance from their jet-setting parents, you can shorten it to 5 minutes. When they start repeating themselves, it's a good time to break the cycle.

Tip #2: Offer Choices

Now that they've had their say, you interrupt them gently. You acknowledge the relationship, and let them know that it's time to move in a different direction. Then you give them choices.

Choice 1, they can stop the conversation entirely. You both get back to your own work and life. This choice isn't mean; it's just both of you moving on with your lives. Their whining is no longer your problem.

If they choose another topic to whine about, you offer them choices.

Choice 2, they can change the subject. This choice lets you stay connected, but disconnects their life-force-sucking tube from your ear canal. You can move on to a topic that you both enjoy. If they choose another topic to whine about, you listen for a little while and offer them choices again.

Choice 3, they can change the listener. In other words, they can go find someone else's life force to devour. This option lets them stay stuck in their misery, but out of your hearing. In fact, if you have an enemy you wish to torment, you can kill two birds with one stone by sending the whiner to talk to your enemy.

Choice 4, we can begin to solve the problem. With this choice, you'll spend more time with them on the same topic—but only if you start finding a solution. Brainstorm together and identify some actions they can take to fix their situation. Trust fund baby has a paper cut? Have them send their personal assistant out to buy a band-aid. Swan-diving puppy problems? Grief counseling and a trip to the pet store may be in order.

Tip #3: Deliver The Choices Respectfully

Setting this kind of boundary is a sensitive process. Phrase it with respect and honor for the individual, even as you give them a fairly blunt choice about the conversation:

"I want very much to talk with you, and we've been on this topic for 15 minutes now. I think I understand what you’re saying and I want to help you so we can move on. Here are 4 ways we can proceed:

"One, we can end our conversation now and get back to what we were doing. Two, we can change the subject; I hear Justin Bieber has a new haircut. Three, if you need to keep talking about your paper cut, I believe Martin may be less busy than I am at the moment and better able to sympathize." (Martin is your personal nemesis.) "Or, we could brainstorm how you can solve the problem. What would you like to do?"

Then let them choose.

Tip #4: Don't Return to the Topic Unless They've Made Progress

Once you've dismissed your whiner, their time is up. If they bring the issue up again, even in a different conversation, they've used up their time allotment. The one exception is if they have actually taken steps towards a solution, you can discuss those steps. If they start whining again, though, it's back to the 4 options.

Tip #5: Don't Waste Time With Chronic Victims

Some people talk about solutions, but rather than generating alternatives, they put all their energy into knocking down your suggestions. These people are victims and want to stay that way. If you stay in the conversation, you'll wither and die. Respectfully say, "I can't talk about this right now unless you would like to concentrate on finding a solution." Then turn and walk away.

Perhaps they'll run after you, eager to find a real answer to their problem. But if not, you've still done them a service. Because the next person they grip with their life-force sucking tentacles will get to hear the story of how you wouldn't listen to their whining. If they wouldn't work together to solve their problem, at least you've given them one more juicy story to tell about how they're such a victim.

And if that isn't loving at its best, what is?

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Stever Robbins is an entrepreneurial advisor who helps executives gain control of their careers and lives by designing career strategy and setting good boundaries. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

- Kelle’s original article on the 15-minute rule

Two Women Talking image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.