The world is full of cynics, whiners and naysayers. It’s best to weed out the negative people from our lives and spend time with those who uplift and encourage us, but some negative people aren’t easy to avoid. They could be our parents, siblings, spouses or children. They could be friends or coworkers. Eight strategies to deal with negative people…
Concede the negative person’s point quickly and completely. Whatever he/she complains about, tell him that you agree, then take his argument even further. This leaves the complainer with nowhere to go on the subject, and it might shut him up or elicit an admission that the situation is not really that bad.
Example: My mother used to tell me that I was a horrible son because I didn’t call her often enough. Arguing got me nowhere. Finally I told her, “You’re right. I am a horrible son. If I had a son like me, I would think he was horrible, too.” She responded, “Oh, you’re not that bad.”
Set conversational boundaries. Some people become negative only when certain topics are broached. Tell them that you do not wish to discuss these topics with them in the future, and ask them to agree that this is OK. (You may have to provide occasional reminders of this agreement in the future.) Do not tell them that their poor attitudes are the reason you want this restriction—that might lead to arguments. Just say that you feel uncomfortable talking about these topics.
Example: A man might tell his brother, “Let’s not talk about our careers anymore. I feel uncomfortable because our views about the workplace are different, and I don’t like to argue with you.”
Share inspirational stories. Some negative people truly believe that success is impossible. Sharing stories about the victories of others might open them up to the possibility of success in their own lives. Use stories from your own experience, or find material in biographies, memoirs and articles about successful people.
Turn complaining sessions into strategy sessions. Sometimes negativity can be transformed into a mandate for action. Tell the negative person that his complaints have merit—so let’s find a way to improve the situation.
Example: Your spouse complains endlessly about the stupidity of local government. Encourage him to circulate a petition or write an editorial for the local newspaper.
Complainers often respond to calls to action with some variation of “What’s the point? I can’t change anything.” Explain that if they just sit around complaining, things are guaranteed not to change. If they take action, at least they have a chance.
Use humor. A joke can help lift the dark cloud that a negative person can bring down upon a room. Just make sure that your jokes are about yourself or the situation and never about the negative person. Making jokes at a negative person’s expense will worsen his mood.
Separate the past from the future. Negative people often are negative because they have suffered past defeats. These people tend to shoot down ideas with statements such as, “We tried that five years ago. It didn’t work.” Respond that while past experience is worth considering, it is not always a guarantee of what will happen in the future. The world has changed…the economy has changed…technology has changed…and the people involved have new skills. An idea that failed five years ago might succeed today.
Press for solutions. Negative people are good at telling us why our ideas will not work, but they are very bad at telling us how to overcome these problems. Whenever a negative person mentions a perceived problem, immediately ask him (and anyone else present) to come up with three potential solutions. This encourages people to focus on a solution rather than the problem. Over time, this can become a new way of thinking for them.
Cross out the problems. Draw a line down the middle of a dry-erase board or a piece of paper. On one side write, “Ways we could make this plan work”…on the other, “Reasons this plan will not work.” Ask for suggestions for both columns. You can do this with a spouse, children, even coworkers. When all the thoughts are in, draw a big X through the second column and say, “Let’s focus on what we can accomplish.” This approach allows negative people to express themselves and then move on.
Example: A businessman I know wanted to stage a fund-raiser for the victims of a natural disaster just days after the disaster occurred. The negative people in his group protested that it takes weeks to get such a project off the ground. The businessman listed all their reservations, then crossed them out and encouraged the group to focus on what could be done. He ended up raising $3 million in three days.