Life Coach Listening to complainers is bad for your brain

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Three ways to deal with negativity

Complaining is bad for your brain. Or, to be more accurate, listening to people whinge on is bad for your brain – which can be hard if you work in an environment jam packed with people determined to see the bad in everything.

According to Trevor Blake, author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, neuroscientists have mapped what happens to brain activity when exposed to negative talk.

‘The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,’ he writes in the book. ‘So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.’

But not only will all the negativity rub off on you, it can also stunt your intelligence. Research shows that exposure to just 30 minutes of negativity peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for problem solving. ‘Basically, it turns your brain to mush,’ Blake says.

And this doesn’t just apply to being exposed at work – the effects are just as bad when exposed to negativity on the television, for example.

Blake makes the important distinction between flagging something that might have gone wrong in the work environment, and dwelling on negative events for the sake of making a complaint.

‘There’s a big difference between bringing your attention to something that’s awry and a complaint,’ Blake explains. ‘Typically, people who are complaining don’t want a solution; they just want you to join in the indignity of the whole thing. You can almost hear brains clink when six people get together and start saying, “Isn’t it terrible?” This will damage your brain even if you’re just passively listening. And if you try to change their behaviour, you’ll become the target of the complaint.’

If your office is full of people prone to complaining, there are steps you can take to shield yourself and protect your brain from the knock-on effects. Blake has the following advice.

1. Step away

Blake learned the importance of distance thanks to his father. ‘My father was a chain smoker. I tried to change his habit, but it’s not easy to do that.’ Given the detrimental effects second-hand smoke could have on his health, Blake knew the only effective step would be to get some distance, and believes the same is true of complaining.

‘The approach I’ve always taken with complaining is to think of it as the same as passive smoking.’

2. Put up a mental shield

If getting some distance just isn’t an option, Blake recommends drawing upon a number of mental techniques to help save your brain. Blake suggests conjuring up your very own protective ‘invisibility cloak’ like Harry Potter, or retreating in your mind to your favourite spot.

‘For me, it was a ribbon of beautiful white sugary sand that extended out in a horseshoe shape from a private island,’ Blake recently told Inc. ‘I would take myself to my private retreat while people were ranting and raving. I could smile at them and nod in all the right places and meanwhile take myself for a walk on my private beach.’

3. Fix it

Lastly, Blake suggests you ask the complainer to fix the problem. ‘Try to get the person who’s complaining to take responsibility for a solution. I typically respond to a complaint with, “What are you going to do about it?”‘. According to Blake, the complainer will either walk away, or try and fix the problem.

How do you handle negative talk in the office? Do you find yourself being sucked in? Share your stories below.

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About the Author

Lizzy has more than ten years’ experience in the print and digital publishing arena and is the Editor at Single File. Having moved from the UK to Australia in 2008, Lizzy has worked for a number of leading publishers in Sydney and has particular expertise in the health, wellness and travel markets. If you have any questions for Lizzy, you can send them across by email to

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