Many of us share an experience, and perhaps on a conscious or subconscious level, know that it is not helping us, yet we continue to participate in its habit. That habit is complaining. 

Complaining can indeed be cathartic. It is a common and familiar response, and it also creates an ‘in group’ between the person or people who share our complaints. However, nothing gets resolved in the complaining club. Complaining might make a connection with those who reflect our frustrations, but it creates a longer distance between ourselves and the person or aspect of our jobs with which we take issue. We all hang out in the complaining club, but no one likes being there. 

Complaining is different from a complaint. A complaint is specific to an issue and exists within the context of that issue. Complaining is the act of taking on the feelings of annoyance, anger, pettiness, blame.  In that state, we stay in one spot with those feelings instead of letting them pass. Often when we are complaining, we are only looking at the surface of the issue; we haven’t noticed (or don’t have the time to catch) that there is an ocean of context that is unseen. That frustrating situation occurs when we are not aware of our or another’s low state of mind. Something to observe is that energies are palpable- the choice to smile or not smile when we pass a colleague, how stressed we are in the moment, reducing compassion, or focusing on an abundance of gratitude. At any given time, we are reacting to our thoughts and responding to others’ verbal and nonverbal cues. We are even hardwired to notice and reflect on the things around us. 

Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we observe another person in action. In the premotor cortex, neurons respond to observations as if the observer were acting it out themselves. “The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding, not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior, and their emotions.” (Written by Sandra Blakeslee in a New York Times article published in 2006) 

In other words, humans are hardwired for empathy. Reaffirming someone’s complaints satisfies a surface sense of compassion, but ongoing complaining mirrors a stubbornness that inhibits healing, growth, or change. When members start signing up for the complaining club, it permeates and reflects stagnation and frustration. Negativity is inevitably going to enter the waters of our workplace. These are high-stress situations with consequences that affect livelihoods and lives. Let the negative thoughts pass, and they will settle on their own.

There is a shared purpose in a workplace in 3 simple things– to deliver the organization’s mission, the motivation to show up to work, and adding value where we can. You can draw continuously from this deep well of shared understanding. It is valuable to engage with this shared purpose and observe your colleague’s state of mind to reflect on their recent comments or actions. Surround yourself with the energies that you would like to mimic. Let your mirror neurons do the rest!

Watch a quick video on mirror neurons to learn more.

This article is inspired by conversations with Executive Coach Ellen Friedman. Ellen is a Clinical Physical Therapist with a Masters degree in Spiritual Psychology with an emphasis in Conscious Health and Healing.