Dealing with Negative People

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in of a book by psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. titled “Positivity: Discover the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.” The title presents a challenge to which we all will encounter. Here are three techniques for dealing with this situation.

Technique 1. Modify the situation. You need to be honest and ask yourself if there is any way that you inadvertently feed this person’s negativity. Could I somehow be baiting him with my own reaction or words? Am I to any degree closed down when we interact? What assumptions do I make about this person? Reviewing these questions might lead to better ways of interacting with this individual.

Another way to change the situation is to be proactive in setting the collective agenda. Choose joint activities that inspire you. Consider whether you might reserve the tasks that irritate you—for example, paying the bills or cleaning up—for when you’re each alone and less likely to fan the collective negativity flames.

If negativity surfaces, a final way to modify the situation is to inject compassion, hope, or even humor. Curb you tendency to respond “in kind” to gratuitous negativity with yet another helping of it. Don’t escalate the problem. Instead offer positive reframes of the negative messages delivered. Convert they “half empty” to half full.” Point out something that you both might see as funny. Scientific studies have shown that relationships in which one partner somehow manages to break the cycle of negative reciprocity—by respond to negativity in a neutral or positive way—fare far better than those in which partners mirror each other’s ill will.

Technique 2. Attend differently. Another strategy is to consider how you might attend to different aspects of this person. What are his positive qualities? What do you appreciate about him? What does he bring to the table? Perhaps your boss’s frequent bursts of anger are matched by his stand-out passion for making a positive difference in the world. Consider the times when your spouse has stood by you, loyal and faithful. Consider how you might give voice to what you appreciate. Research has documented that, in relationships, the areas where you choose to cast your attention and devote your words grow in strength and significance over time.

Technique 3. Change meanings. Instead of seeing this person as bringing you down, consider the quote by Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck,
Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath.
Could this person or situation be a teacher in disguise? They could be, if you reframe your time with her as a challenge—a challenge to be more mindful, less judgmental, or more compassionate. Remember that you do get to choose whether to react to the negativity this person spews. His negativity need not be yours. Working on you own reactions in a mindful way may even remove some of the fuel that keeps this person’s negativity flaming. But even if it doesn’t, you still come out ahead. You’ll have further developed your skill in mindfulness.

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