Monday, October 24, 2016

How to Deal with Negative People

This article is based on one by Raj Raghunathan, PH.D, published in the March 19th 2013, issue of Psychology Today.  As usual, you can read the full article and view all the advertisements by clicking on the link.

Staying positive is a key element of the Design Thinking Process. As both team members and facilitators, knowing when and where criticism fits and works is a powerful skill.

A Fistful of Fears

A practical approach to dealing with pessimists is to start by understanding the reasons for their negativity. Almost all negativity has its roots in one of three deep-seated fears. Being aware of them can make a big difference in your approach.

  • Being disrespected by others
  • Not being loved by others
  • “Bad things” are going to happen (to them)

These fears feed off each other to fuel the belief that the world is a dangerous place and people are generally mean, but on a deeper level they are basically self-focused. From the perspective of someone who feels afraid, it makes sense to question the wisdom of pursuing dreams and be adverse to taking risks. Negative people also find it difficult to trust others or follow others' plans.

These fears manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including:

  • Sensitivity - Taking umbrage at others’ innocent comments; e.g., “You look good today” is interpreted as, “You mean, I didn’t look good yesterday?”
  • Judgmental - The tendency to impute negative motivations to others’ actions. Guests who don’t compliment a meal are judged as “uncouth brutes who don’t deserve future invitations.”
  • Ambivalence - A sense of helplessness about one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges, leading to anxiety and to shame or guilt when the challenges are not overcome.
  • Demanding - Although negative people are diffident about their own abilities, they nevertheless put pressure on close-others to succeed and “make me proud” and “not let me down”.
  • Pessimism - Belief that the future is bleak; Negative people can more readily think of ways in which an important sales call will go badly than well.
  • Aversion to Risk - especially in social settings. This leads to reluctance to divulge any information that could be “used against me,” leading, ultimately, to boring conversations and superficial relationships.
  • Need for control - especially in close relationships. Negative people have strong preferences on what and how their children and spouses should eat, what type of car the should drive, what clothes to wear, etc.
Remember - No idea is perfect, failure is not fatal and it's about other's needs.

It might seem paradoxical that negative people can simultaneously express shyness and modesty about about themselves and feel entitled to others’ respect and love. Similarly, it may seem paradoxical that negative people feel pessimistic about their own future and yet need to goad others to succeed. It’s precisely because negative people don’t feel respected and loved enough and don’t feel sufficiently in control of their own life that they demand others’ respect and love, seeking to control them. From that perspective, negativity is a poorly disguised cry for help.

In short, negative people need help, but have difficulty expressing it.

The simplest way of responding to negative people might seem to be giving them the respect, love, and control they crave. However, by fulfilling their desires, you are also rewarding their negativity.

Three Keys to Success

The most tenable option for dealing with negative people involves three elements:
  • Developing and expressing compassion for the negative person (Listen)
  • Taking responsibility for your own happiness.  Don't own the criticism. 
  • Maturity in how you interact with the negative person.
The compassionate element involves not advising the negative person about changing their behavior. It also involves never lecturing or preaching to them about the sources of their negativity.

Most of us already struggle with critical feedback. Negative people are already particularly resistant to it. It may be difficult for you to not react in some way to the negative person,before you do, remember, that while you have to deal with the negative person in doses, they have to deal with themselves all the time! This realization will hopefully help you feel some compassion towards them.

Taking personal responsibility for your own attitude requires doing what it takes to protect your own happiness. If you cannot maintain your outlook and composure you can't be much help to anyone else.

Act to preserve your set of positive attitudes; You may have to take time away on a regular basis to maintain your composure. At the same time, you don’t want to simultaneously trigger their fear of abandonment.

The Simple Truth of the Matter

The most reliable way to steer the negative person towards being more positive is to be positive yourself. While this seems simple and obvious, and has been the best advice for thousands of years; "Let your light so shine..." The best way to do that is act like someone who is respected and loved by others, being in control of the important aspects of their own life.

Pursue dreams, take healthy risks, and trust. (Yes, that sounds a lot like Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.) Authentically, spontaneously, act in a positive and trusting manner. If a negative person makes skeptical or cynical comments you will have a confident base to respond from.

If the negator warns you of the futility of pursuing your dreams, let him know that you feel differently about your chances. Calmly explain that you would rather than take the chance and fail than not try at all. Likewise, if the negative person warns you of the dire consequences of taking what you think is a healthy risk, tell him calmly, “We'll see what happens.” This is easier in the context of a DT session, because as a Facilitator you can set the rules - No criticism in this phase, we'll do that later.

Over time, the negative person will recognize that, while your tolerance for taking risks may be higher than theirs, you are reliable and trustworthy.

Finally, if the negative person chastises you for trusting people too much, consider asking them (calmly) to recount instances in which you have been taken advantage of on account of your trusting nature. You could also point out that research shows trust is the foundation of strong teams and meaningful relationships and those contribute to greater success.

People like being around positive people, so the negative person will, even if only grudgingly, have to appreciate your positive outlook and attitudes. People also like feeling positive themselves. So, as the negative person experiences your positive influence they will like themselves better. This hopefully will lead to a virtuous cycle of greater trust in others and optimism about the future.

A Closing Look in the Mirror

Finally, dealing with negative people takes humility. If you find it difficult to deal with others’ negativity there is probably at least a seed of negativity in you. If you didn’t feel constricted or deflated by others’ negativity and were fully secure in how you view yourself you probably wouldn’t find the company of negative people to be adverse.

Realizing that you probably have to work on fixing your own negativity even as you are helping another person deal with their negativity will help you gain the compassion, optimism, and maturity that is needed for this tricky, but ultimately satisfying, endeavor.

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