How to Deal with Negative People in a Positive Way

I remember Mike like it was yesterday, even though I met him over a decade ago. He was the guy sitting in the back of the room with the dark cloud over his head in a supervisor training I was doing,

He slouched. He looked morose. I found his comments in class to be consistently negative.

He was the kind of attendee you wish would have called in sick that day.

He was the kind of negative person that supervisors dread talking to, and find hard to deal with.

This was an in-house program and we all ate lunch together. I waited until the end to go through the lunch line, and when I reached the group of tables assigned to us, I was horrified to discover that the only seat left was across from Mike.

I steeled myself for an unpleasant lunch conversation.

Instead what I got was a new perspective on Mike and his version of “negative people.”

How negativity can be an indication of positive intention

I got to see the positive roots of Mike’s negativity.

As he talked about the things that bothered him about his employer, what became clear was that Mike cared deeply about his employer, the reputation of their products, and his and his colleague’s ability to produce great quality products.

He felt continually frustrated that his concerns and suggestions repeatedly fell on deaf ears. He felt frustrated that management – -in his opinion — -was not living up to its stated commitment of producing the best possible product.

I was stunned to discover that Mike’s “bad attitude” was not because he didn’t care or was a malcontent. It was because he cared so much, and his concerns were continually ignored.

Negativity: Symptom or lifestyle

Some people are habitually negative.

That’s just how they roll. They view the world through a cynical, skeptical lens.

They love to complain, blame, and proclaim themselves as victims. They reflexively believe that new ideas won’t work and change is bad.

Through a combination of nature, nurture, and personal choice, negativity is their default response.

There is a whole other group of people who get perceived as negative and who are lumped in with the previous group who should NOT be. These are people who:

Have an innate ability to see the potential downside in things but don’t know how to express it skillfully and helpfully.

You WANT these people on your team. Well, maybe you don’t enjoy them, but you NEED them. If you only have “We can totally do this! This idea rocks!!!!!” people on your team, you can virtually guarantee unnecessary glitches and full-fledged disasters as a regular part of life. Blue sky, anything-is-possible, big picture thinkers are not wired to look for what won’t work. They aren’t wired to see little details that can derail. They are wired to see how things can work (even when they can’t). Thus, you need the what-can-go-wrong people to balance the possibility-fueled thinking of the other group.

Have a strong desire for excellence, want their employer to be the best it can be, and feel both are being thwarted.

Because their concerns have fallen on deaf ears, they feel disenfranchised. Because they value excellence so highly, because they want to do their best and be part of a world class outfit, they are especially disheartened by their concerns being ignored, and their ability to do their best being continually thwarted.

In “Black Hawk Down at Work,” psychologist Thomas Britt studied morale among Rangers involved in the ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1992. Interviews with Rangers revealed that the threat of battle was not the biggest difficulty for the Rangers to endure. Far more difficult were the unclear expectations and other operational obstacles that made it hard for them to do the job they were asked to do. It was this they found most discouraging. Furthermore, Britt and his team discovered a connection between commitment and morale, which speaks to this issue of negativity born out of commitment:

“We discovered that the most committed and personally invested Rangers, the ones who ranked work-relevant values as the most important, ranked morale and job satisfaction lower in the face of insurmountable impediments. Simply put, the rangers who cared the most about their work were the most demoralized when they were thwarted from doing their best.”

9 techniques for addressing negativity in a positive way

How do you address the issue of “negativity” with someone without them thinking you are telling them to keep quiet? How do you help them see their approach is not productive, while still encouraging them to speak up? Here are nine techniques for doing that.

1. “Name the Game”

While the term “game” sometimes refers to some type of manipulation or hidden agenda that you need to address, in this case, it simply means the recurring behavior pattern you want to discuss. When you do, you want to:

  • Describe the behavior you’re talking about in concrete terms so the person knows explicitly what you’re referencing. Use a specific recent example as a launching point.
  • State that the recent instance is part of an ongoing pattern. Example: “Jack, I wanted to check in with you about your comment to Nicole this morning in the meeting when she suggested we ________, and you immediately responded by saying ‘Duh. Tried that years ago and it didn’t work out so well’….”

2. Assume positive intent

Often people who we experience as “negative” are actually trying to be helpful. They want to prevent others from making what they see as a serious mistake. They just express their concern and perspective in unpleasant, off putting ways. If we simply criticize their approach and don’t acknowledge their positive intent, they are likely to feel like their concerns and opinions are unwelcome. If they get this message, they will care a little — or a lot — less about contributing in the future. They will have less “emotional skin in the game.” Thus, it’s important to acknowledge the value their perspective and involvement can bring — if they communicate it effectively.

Examples: “I know you’re trying to be helpful by saying that…” or “I imagine that you’re trying to save us from wasting time and money on something you believe won’t work…”

3. Explain what you are not saying or intending

This is an excellent bit of advice from the authors of Crucial Confrontations, because it helps you prevent possible misunderstandings and, by doing so, prevents the other person from becoming defensive.

Example: “I’m NOT saying that I want you or anybody else to NOT speak up if they think something isn’t a good idea or if they see a potential problem. We definitely NEED people on the team to do that…”

4. Ask them about their positive intent

In addition to acknowledging the benefit of someone who can see potential flaws in an idea, ask them to share their actual intent. When you do this, be aware that people often aren’t aware of their true intent and will come up with explanations that make sense to them, but aren’t necessarily true. For information on this phenomenon, called the “Interpreter Function,” check out Michael Gazzaniga’s fascinating research. Even if the person’s explanation of why they do what they do isn’t reality-based, simply talking about it helps put it out on the table and allows you to discuss more productive ways of achieving their stated intent.

Example: “So, can you share what you were thinking when you said that?” or “When you say _____ what is your hope that saying that will accomplish?”

5. Connect cause and effect

Often people who say things that annoy or repel others have no clue about the effect they’re having on others or the price they pay for the effect they have. As part of this conversation, you want to clearly, but with compassion, describe what you see as the effect of their behavior, both in terms that concern you — e.g. team performance — and terms that likely would concern them — e.g. how willing others are to listen to them and take them seriously.

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Examples:

“When you say things like ‘Duh, been there, done that’ or immediately say ‘That won’t work’ — even though you want to be helpful — it ends up shutting down the group. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people stop offering their opinions after you say those things.”

“Another concern I have about the effect of this is on how it affects the way others see you and react to your input. You know how if someone is always saying ‘That’ll never work’ or seem to see the negative in everything, you stop wanting to listen to them, because they’re a downer? I’m afraid that’s happening to you. Even though you have valuable input, I’m concerned that the way you give it is diminishing other’s willingness to listen to it.”

6. Ask if they understand

Often when working with managers, when I coach them on how to proceed after they bring up the issue, many want to jump right into asking the other person, “OK. So what should we do about this?” If the other person doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, it’s pretty hard to have a productive conversation about possible solutions and an action plan.

Example: “Do you know what I mean?” or “Do you know what I mean by _________?”

7. Ask for their perspective

They might understand what you’re saying, but see it very differently. If they disagree with your perception or assessment, how invested will they be in problem-solving? Think of times someone defined a situation in a way that you disagreed with and didn’t ask for or listen to your perspective. They just plowed forward with a game plan. Think of how angry, resentful, and misunderstood, you felt. Thus, make sure you ask for their perspective.

Example: “So, what’s your take on this?”

8. Involve them in generating alternative approaches

As you know, the more someone is involved in generating solutions and an action plan, the more investment they will feel.

Example: “So, given that we both think it’s important to have someone who can see potential landmines and point those out, let’s talk about how you can do that in a way that works better. I’ve got some thoughts, but first want to hear what you’re thinking. What might be some other ways of sharing your concerns?”

9. Thank them for talking about this issue

Let them know you appreciate their willingness to talk about this. If they were strikingly non-defensive and open, acknowledge how much you appreciate that. Many, if not most, people, find talking about interpersonal issues uncomfortable. So when someone is willing to do that, it’s nice to acknowledge their willingness to do so.

Example: “Thanks for being open to talking about this. I really appreciate that” or “I really appreciate your openness to talking about this. Since one of the most important qualities I look for in a team member is openness to feedback and a willingness to talk about things, I really appreciate and respect your doing this.”

Putting it all together in the declaration/invitations format

In the Constructive Conversations model, I use a simple two-step process to describe how you bring up the issue. You “declare” what the issue is and then you “invite” the person into a conversation about it.

My overall guiding principle for this process is: “Use only enough words to get your point across and get them involved in the conversation as soon as possible.” If you use too many words, it will start to feel like a lecture to them. However, if you don’t provide enough context — i.e. you’re too brief — the person is likely to become confused, which can trigger frustration, which often results in anger and aggression.

While you might want to hit all nine points in the above list, you don’t have to cover them all in your opening declaration/invitation.

Here are two examples you might use in this situation:

  1. “Jack, I wanted to check in with you about your comment to Nicole this morning in the meeting when she suggested we ________, and you immediately responded by saying ‘Duh. Tried that years ago and it didn’t work out so well.’ I wanted us to talk about that because I’ve heard you say similar things over the last few months when you disagreed with someone and I’m concerned about the effect that has on the team. More specifically, how willing people are to share their ideas. Do you know what I mean?”
  2. “Jack, I wanted to check in with you about your comment to Nicole this morning in the meeting when she suggested we ________, and you immediately responded by saying ‘Duh. Tried that years ago and it didn’t work out so well.’ While I appreciate your desire to not have us waste time and effort on something that won’t work, I think it would be helpful if we can come up with a way for you to share what I think is a valuable perspective in a more listener-friendly way, because my concern is that the approach you use shuts people down, rather than makes it comfortable for people to discuss their point of view. Do you know what I mean?”

Notice I did not say “I want to talk with you about…” While that might work fine with someone who is not prone to defensiveness, “I want to talk with you about…” can sound a bit ominous and “You’re in trouble” to someone with whom you’ve had a history of challenging conversations.

How to use this to make a difference

Please don’t just move on thinking “Hmm….interesting. I’ll try to keep this in mind.” Let this article work for you and actually make a difference in your organization. It will not only help increase your ability to re-engage the disengaged, it will help make managers’ lives easier, as nothing saps our energy like trying to get negative people to respond more positively.

Encourage your managers to share this with people they experience as negative and use it as a conversation starter. If you don’t think they have the skills to make the conversation productive, coach them or invest in training and coaching.

Here are a few resources to help you with that:

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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