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Recently, during a particularly challenging workout, I blurted out in exhausted frustration, “Sometimes I just have to whine.” My trainer chuckled at me—and then he [[she?]] told me to keep pushing through. And as much as I wanted to walk away and go take a nap, I listened, and kept on pushing through the routine until we were done.

Whining is often seen as a sign of weakness or laziness—and honestly, until this workout experience, I had always seen it as downright annoying. It has always been one of my biggest pet peeves with my nieces; whining, along with pouting, is something that I discourage strongly anytime I am around them because I want to encourage them to create positive solutions to problems or arguments with their sisters. They know Aunt Gina doesn’t “do” whining. But this moment with my trainer gave me a different perspective: as I listened to myself bellyache about how I did not want to do the 15 reps of curls [[he/she?]] wanted me to do, it occurred to me that whining may have a positive purpose.

Not convinced? Here are three helpful ways to think about whining that leaders can use to learn from the grumbling of others:

#1: Whining is a form of self-expression.

Whining is a way for an individual to release exactly what is on their mind at that particular moment. Unfortunately, because this self-expression is normally accompanied by a “woe is me attitude” or with a fat bottom lip and frown (the victim undertone of which makes me roll my eyes), it can be difficult to see the value in it—but there are times when it’s helpful to whine. In my workout, for example, whining was my way of expressing that I was uncomfortable with/tired of doing what my trainer wanted me to do. I could have silently cussed at and resented him for pushing me too hard, but instead I said, “Okay, I am tired of this. You’re just being mean to me.” It was my moment to be heard. So as a people leader, don’t dismiss the whiners in your group; pay attention to what they are saying and when they say it, because what lies beneath the whining may be something you need to hear.

#2: Whining is a temperature gauge.

If seen in the proper light, listening to someone’s whining is no different than taking their temperature when they don’t feel well. During my workout, when I said I did not want to move forward, my trainer said, “Take a break. Do your muscles ache, or do you feel real pain?“ He used this moment as a means of evaluating if there was really something wrong or if I just needed to let off steam. When people gripe, there is usually a reason behind it, even if they appear to be chronic offenders. See the moment as an opportunity to listen and ask questions. Be genuinely interested in the concerns that they are expressing. You will find one of two things: 1) they just needed to be heard and you can defuse their concerns, or 2) there really is a problem that needs to be addressed.

#3: Whining is a request for encouragement.

Moaning and groaning to others is often a hidden cry for encouragement. When I caught myself complaining during my workout, I realized what I really needed was for my trainer to tell me he believed in me and knew I could do it. I needed him to push me to get through those last few reps, because I couldn’t do it on my own. This realization made me reflect upon the number of times my team members had come to my office with complaints about coworkers or project deliverable they were trying to meet. More often than not, their grievances were nothing more than a way for them to ask for encouragement without actually saying they needed it. When I learned this, and I started responding to their rantings and ravings with responses like, “I know it feels difficult right now, but I know you can work through it,” my team members responded by saying, “Yeah, you’re right—thanks for listening.” That was it; the whining was done, and they were ready to move forward in a positive direction.

Sometimes people have to whine. You may not like it, but as a leader it is important to listen and encourage people instead of shutting down their self-expression and labeling them as negative. If, like my trainer, you can look past the pouty lips and start reading into what your team members are actually saying to you when they whine, you will create an environment in which they can grow and thrive—and that’s good for everyone.

Reflection Question: When people come to your office to whine, what do you do?  Try to pay attention the next time and see what you can learn!

Call for input: If you have a question about leading, supervising or managing people, please send an email to info@peopleleadership.com and the answer to your question may be featured in one of my weekly blog posts or weekly People Leadership Insights.

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