Negativity is contagious. Even if you start off in a good mood, talking to a complainer or pessimist can turn a good day into a bad one.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other people’s problems. Supporting each other through hard times is an important part of a good relationship. But talking through problems is different from the repetitive, unproductive negativity of chronic complainers. You know you are talking to a negative person when you feel tired during the conversation…you start feeling as powerless and victimized as he does…you notice yourself wanting to avoid the person because of the gloom that follows him/her around.
Most pessimists and whiners aren’t trying to ruin your day. In fact, they often aren’t aware of the negative effect they have on other people. After sharing their unhappiness, frustration or disenchantment with life, they feel temporary relief. They don’t consider the possibility that the behavior bringing them such relief causes other people to feel worse.
They also may not be aware that by venting their gripes, they alienate others, further increasing their loneliness and dissatisfaction and increasing their sense of powerlessness.
To protect your emotional health, it’s a good idea to minimize the time you spend with negative people. But if the complainer is someone you work with or is a friend or relative you care about, staying out of the person’s path may not be practical or desirable.
Several simple tactics can keep a pessimist from wearing you out. Some techniques work better than others depending on the person, relationship and situation, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different methods.
Important: Keep your tone matter of fact and pleasant. If your voice carries a hint of scolding, shaming or condescension, these strategies won’t work.
How to keep a complainer from dragging you down…
The chronic complainer doesn’t want advice on how to improve his situation. He wants company in his downbeat view of the world. Even if he asks for your input, you are likely to wind up in a spiral where all your suggestions are rejected or lead to new complaints, and both of you will get progressively more annoyed.
Instead, ask in a friendly tone, “Are you looking for advice, or do you need to vent? If venting would be helpful, I can listen for five minutes. After that, I’ll have to do something else or I will wind up in a bad mood—and that won’t be good for either of us.”
Another option is to let the person complain for a minute or two, then say in a friendly tone, “Gosh, what a drag. What are you going to do now?” If the person says he has no idea or asks what you think, say pleasantly, “Hey, my advice only works for me. It’s your life, and I know you can figure this out. Keep me posted on how it goes.”
Practice a few quick, light or even playful phrases that you can choose from to change the subject from negative to positive. Examples…
• “Wow, Mom, the doctor kept you waiting at the nursing home—sorry to hear it. What did he say is causing the pain in your hip?”
• “That does sound like something to complain about. Tell me something that’s going right. There’s so much negativity in the world, it’s starting to get to me, and some positive news would be a big help.”
• If you’re in a group that’s complaining: “Hey, everybody, we’re becoming a tad negative. Given the state of the world, we have more to be thankful for than upset about. Can we change the subject?”
If you feel yourself being pulled into the other person’s negative view, say in a compassionate tone, “You’re doing a good job of helping me feel what it feels like to be you. I’m sorry you have to deal with all that.”
For a person who probably doesn’t receive many compliments and who feels alone in his unhappiness, this simple expression of empathy may provide the affirmation that he needs to let go of the negative topic for the time being.
Ask for Change
If the relationship is in danger of deteriorating, a more active intervention may be needed. Use an approach I call assertive humility—clearly stating what you need by asking for help.
What to say: “I need your help. You’re a special person to me, yet I find myself wanting to avoid you. The reason is that every time we talk, I feel unhappy during the conversation and for a while afterward. It seems to me that you focus more on the negative than the positive, and that’s hard on me. Before I get to the point where I say something harsh or actively avoid you, I’d like to make a request. When we’re together, I need to hear about at least one thing that’s going right in your life. Would you be willing to try that?”
Dealing with Truly Toxic People
The above techniques work well with garden-variety pessimists. With even stronger toxic negativity, you need to take a different approach.
The toxic person isn’t looking for support but for control. He gains that control by throwing you off balance with upsetting, manipulative or irrational behavior.
You are dealing with a toxic person if he claims that his negative circumstances are your fault…goes beyond complaining to criticize or verbally attack you…twists your words so that you end up confused and frustrated.
Simple strategy: While the toxic person is ranting, look him in the eye neutrally and nonconfrontationally. When he’s done, pause for two to four seconds—a little longer than is customary in conversation. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, say one of the following…
• “Do you want to run that by me again?”
• “Would you say that to me again in a quieter voice?”
• “Do you actually believe what you just said?”
These responses work because they let the toxic person know that you are onto him and won’t be provoked into an argument or outburst.
Rehearse these responses until you can keep your demeanor both pleasant and assertive when you speak. (For more on dealing with toxic people, read 8 Ways to Mange the Impossible Person in Your Life.)