Most people prefer to work with those who spend more time laughing than complaining. They often get the opposite.
Although people aren’t born with a negative attitude, over a life span they experiences disappointments, regrets, and broken promises. Some people are resilient by nature or experience. Others become perpetually cynical, resentful, and paranoid about who will cheat them next.
Unfortunately, negativity can quickly destroy a good mood.
Can you respond to negative people without becoming upset yourself? Can you lift everyone’s spirit by overriding the dark cloud of pessimism? There are biological and psychological benefits for fostering hope and optimism even if the people around you are full of doubt.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with negative people:
1. Avoid reacting. If your tendency is to commiserate and divulge your own complaints, or get annoyed because they ruined your day, practice noticing when your anger or irritation is triggered. Catch your muscles tightening, and then breathe and choose to feel something else. I once had a client put a hook on his office wall so every time a person entered his office with a complaint or horror story, he looked at the hook to remind himself as he slowed his breathing to control his reactive emotions. He then said the word, “patience” to himself and either listened to discover what the person needed or asked to focus on solutions instead of what was wrong.
2. Listen beyond the emotion to what people resent or assume will hurt them. Many people cover their disappointments and fears by complaining, blaming, and criticizing others. Listen to understand their situation and what respect, control, recognition, security, or value they lost. Feeling understood can diffuse their negative feelings. Then you can determine if you can help the person or at least acknowledge that you understand why they feel the way they do. You can read more on how to change people’s minds in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.
3. Ask the person if they want to find a solution or just need a sounding board to safely express how they feel. You don’t need to agree with them. You just need to know what they need in the moment. Start by acknowledging and holding up a mirror to their feelings. For example, you might say, “You seem very upset about not being recognized for your effort. Is that right?” Many habitually negative people walk through life believing no one cares or understands them. Demonstrating that you hear and understand their feelings may be all they need before you can ask them what they want to do next.
4. Don’t rehearse what you are going to say while they talk. When people think you are not listening, they spiral deeper into their feelings. They don’t need you to fix them, they need you to listen and understand. Then they might respond when you ask them what is in their power to control in the moment so they can begin to feel less victimized.
5. Teach others where your personal boundaries lie. If people are not willing to look at how they might help themselves in the situation, you might hold up the mirror by saying, “You don’t seem willing to look for a solution or a different way of dealing with your problem. Is that true?” If they indicate the situation is hopeless, you can say, “I understand why you feel the way you do. I would be happy to take up this conversation with you at another time when you are willing to look at taking a step forward.” If they keep complaining, you may have to be more direct by saying, “It is important for me to shift our conversation to something more positive. Either we do that now or later, but I can’t keep looking at the dark side of this situation with you now.”
Keep in mind that you have the power to choose your feelings, thoughts, and behavior in response to someone else. Notice when your stomach, chest, shoulders, or jaw tighten up. Breathe, relax your muscles, and choose to feel compassionate, curious, patient, or hopeful instead.
It is not easy to create the habit of responding positively to negative, cynical people. Like any new skill, it seems difficult until it becomes easy. You will take two steps forward and one step back. Some people, possibly family members, will always trigger your reactions. Yet step by step, conversation by conversation, you will get better at warding off the contagion of negativity and helping others to move on.
When organizations such as The Hershey Company, Duke Clinical Research and American Express want their employees to engage in powerful conversations that connect, influence, and activate change, they call on Dr. Marcia Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds uses passion and humor to demonstrate the power of holding Deep Leap Conversations that transform connections and cultures. Visit her website https://outsmartyourbrain.com/ to learn how you can work with her.