Do you live or work with a serial complainer? Then beware. According to Trevor Blake, author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, exposure to nonstop negativity impairs brain function.

Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity, including viewing it on television, peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus — the part of your brain you need for problem solving. As if that’s not bad enough, Blake says, “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.”

God forbid! Then there’s a Canadian study that reveals that by just listening to annoying whiners during office meetings or reading their emails can result in significantly higher blood pressure readings, abnormally elevated cortisol levels and increased anal retentiveness.

Naturally, companies need to hear about problems, but according to Blake there is a huge difference between bringing your attention to something that’s awry and a complaint. He says, “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 click when six people get together and start saying, ‘Isn’t this terrible?’”

Blake warns that this can negatively affect your brain even if you’re just passively listening. And, good luck if you try to change their behavior as you can easily become the target of their complaint.

So how do you protect and guard your brain from being infiltrated by incessant complainers? Blake recommends the three following strategies:

» 1. Get some distance.

“My father was a chain smoker,” Blake confides. “I tried to change his habit, but it’s not easy to do that.” Blake knew secondhand smoke could damage his own lungs as well. “My only recourse was to distance myself.”

You should look at complaining the same way, he says: “The approach I’ve always taken with complaining is to think of it as the same as passive smoking.” Your brain will thank you if you can get yourself away from the bellyacher.

» 2. Ask the complainer to fix the problem.

Sometimes getting distance isn’t an option. If you can’t easily walk away, a second strategy is to ask the complainer to fix the problem.

“Try to get the person who’s complaining to take responsibility for a solution,” Blake says. “I typically respond to a complaint with, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Many complainers walk away huffily at that point, because he hasn’t given them what they wanted, Blake reports. But some may actually try to solve the problem.

» 3. Shields up!

When you’re trapped listening to a complaint, you can use mental techniques to block out the griping and save your neurons. Blake favors one used by the late Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros. Having difficulty handling the hostility of the crowd, he imagined a bell jar that no one could see descending from the sky to protect him. Blake says that his own imaginary defense is “more like a Harry Potter invisibility cloak.”

The above suggestion may seem far-fetched, but chronic complainers can wear you down and even begin to influence your opinion — exactly what they want to do. So protect yourself in the clenches and smile like the Cheshire cat — it will drive them crazy.

Susan Ann Darley is a consultant and creativity coach for corporations and individuals. Click here for more information, or contact her at or 805.845.3036. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.