Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone we worked with lifted our spirits with their enthusiasm and good humor? You might say yes but realize this is a hallucination. Or you might say no because relentlessly happy people make you crazy.
It’s not likely you or the people around you were born with a negative attitude. Over a life span, everyone 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.
There are many biological and psychological benefits for fostering hope and optimism even if the people around you are full of doubt. Can you respond to negative people without becoming upset yourself? Can you overpower the dark cloud of pessimism to keep up the spirit of everyone else?
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with negative people:
- Avoid reacting. Whether your tendency is to commiserate and become negative too or you get annoyed because they ruined your day, you can notice your own fears, anger, or irritation with negative people 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 to control his own reactive emotions. He then either listened to discover what the person needed to move forward or set a boundary around the conversation, asking to focus on solutions instead of what was wrong.
- Listen beyond the emotion to what people feel they have lost or their fears about the future. Many people cover their fears and disappointments 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 get what they need or just acknowledge that you understand why they feel the way they do. You can read more on how to change people’s mind with an inquiry process in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.
- 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 no one understands them. Demonstrating that you hear and understand their feelings may be all they need before you can ask them what they need to do next.
- Don’t rehearse what you are going to say while they talk. When negative 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.
- 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 mirror this stance and declare your own position. For example, you might say, “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 impossible or they cycle back to complaining, you can then say, “I understand why you feel the way you do but it doesn’t look like there is anything else I can do for you. 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 a more positive note. 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.