Dealing with negative people

We all feel negative from time to time and to be fair, this isn’t a bad thing. We can all think of times when everything has seemed to go wrong at once and it can be really helpful to take a step back and get negative feelings out before moving on towards a more positive frame of mind. But some people in our lives may be persistently negative and nothing we say or do ever seems to make a difference. Whether the person is a colleague, a friend or a family member, there are things we can do to protect ourselves from being negatively influenced by their outlook.

Consider the reasons behind the person’s mindset

Some mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can cause people to feel persistently negative so it’s important that we separate the person from their condition. However, people who feel negative much of the time may not have a mental health issue at all – some people can find it hard to feel positive. What we see is not always what we get and it can be helpful to ask ourselves if the person has always been negative, or is their mindset a fairly recent development? If you don’t know the person well, your only option might be to simply become conscious of this (which will help you to reduce your own stress levels). However, if you are close to them, you might consider asking them if they need support through what seems like a difficult time for them.

If they respond positively, you can refer them to the retailTRUST helpline where they can speak in total confidence to a trained advisor. No one needs to suffer alone, and sometimes asking someone if they’re okay is the first step on their journey to getting the help and support they deserve.

Depression and anxiety are very isolating and asking someone who is in emotional pain to ‘just think positively’ is like asking them to climb a mountain in ten minutes flat. Their negative outlook isn’t them – it’s likely a symptom of their distress and with the right help, care and support they can recover and start to live life to the fullest.

Don’t try and change the person

If the person is simply ‘one of those people who finds fault with everything’, keep in mind that trying to change their negative worldview into one which is optimistic is hard work (not to mention impossible if you’re not a counsellor who is working therapeutically with them). Let them find fault – that’s ok! You don’t need to agree with them or even challenge their views. You can just listen to them and when it becomes too much, or you feel your stress levels rising, politely excuse yourself. Go to the coffee machine, back to your desk, leave the room…but don’t feel trapped. Misery loves company and the longer you stay, the more likely it is that they will continue trying to get you to agree with them (and you might not even be aware that this is what’s happening). Exiting gracefully is a good strategy and it can be done calmly and politely.

Empathise with them

Have you ever been really annoyed by something only to have someone tell you to ‘calm down’? How did that make you feel? Did you relax as the person suggested or did you feel even more worked up? Negative people benefit more from an empathetic ear than suggestions or solutions on what they should do. We all know how frustrating it is to be told that we’re going about something the wrong way even when we know we are! This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them – far from it – but seeing them as simply human and in a bad place can help you to see their headspace for what it is. It doesn’t need to affect you.

Keep things as light as possible

It’s human instinct when speaking with someone who is very negative to try and get them into a happier place. But keep in mind that their negativity may be very deep-rooted (sometimes from early childhood) and you’re never going to be in a position to ‘chivvy them along’. Instead, try and keep the mood light. If the person is focused on the negative and it’s wearing you down, steer the conversation around to something neutral such as the weather, common friends, or even what’s been happening in the sporting world. If they still want to return to the negative, exit the conversation as politely as you can. Your own wellbeing is incredibly important, and protecting it is the smart thing to do.

It’s all in the timing…

When you’re feeling tired, unwell, stressed or anxious, steer clear from people you know will bring you down. It doesn’t mean that you need to avoid the person forever – just until you feel in a better headspace to engage with them. When we’re feeling vulnerable emotionally or physically, we have less resistance to destructive influences.

Don’t put fuel on the fire

When we agree with a negative person to be polite, all we’re doing is feeding their negativity (remember – misery loves company!). We’re then vulnerable to negative feelings and thoughts ourselves and things go downhill from there. One way to reduce your own stress levels when with a negative person is to ignore their comments. If they’re not getting the desired response, they may become less negative (it’s not always the case, but it’s worth a try). But, if the person is becoming more and more involved in a negative rant, keep your body language and facial expressions neutral and consider saying something like ‘I see’, or ‘Okay’. You might then, depending on the situation, try and steer them to more neutral territory.

On the other hand, if they happen to say something positive (even one thing!), respond enthusiastically (‘I couldn’t agree more’, ‘That’s a really good point’), keeping your body language positive and energetic. They’re likely to respond positively to you (consciously or subconsciously) and you may find that their negativity lessens somewhat.

Don’t take their viewpoints personally

Negative people aren’t just negative to others – they’re also negative to themselves. And if you feel drained around them, imagine how they must feel most of the time. Everyone has positive attributes and it can be helpful to think about what you like about the person; are they really intelligent, good at their job, do they have a talent for something you wish you did? Recognise the positive things and mention one to him or her. They may reject your compliment outright, but know that they’ll walk away feeling better for having heard it.

Ignore gossip

Gossip is always destructive – even when it’s focused on something seemingly unimportant. It’s not surprising that negative people tend to gossip more than positive people and often because they’re looking for other people to reinforce their negative views. We all like a little bit of banter from time to time, but gossip is toxic (and usually unfounded anyway!). If someone is ‘having a go’ at people who aren’t there to defend themselves or is putting forth negative views about a situation, simply walk away. Gossip feeds negativity and if you’re feeling a little wobbly yourself, it’s nearly impossible to step back and ignore the comments. Resist the urge to agree with the person even if you happen to think they’re correct, and politely remove yourself from the line of fire. It can also be really helpful to say something along the lines of ‘I don’t agree with you because I don’t have all of the facts’ and then move on to something totally unrelated before exiting the conversation.

Meet up in groups

This may not be possible in the workplace, but if you have a particularly negative friend or family member, try and make sure that you’re not alone with them on a regular basis. In a one-to-one conversation, you’re likely to feel that their negativity is directed solely at you. But when you and another mutual friend or another family member are together with the person it’s so much easier to keep the conversation lighthearted. Of course, you’re not ‘ganging up’ on the person but if you have other positive people around the table, the mood is likely to lift and your own stress levels will go down.

Consider reducing or even stopping contact with them

This isn’t possible in the workplace, but if the person is a friend or family member, consider reducing contact with them or avoiding them altogether when you’re in a stressed place yourself. Your health and wellbeing is crucial and consistently negative people will only drag you down. It’s not always easy, but remember – if you’re no longer available to them, they’ll just find someone else to vent to. And that’s nothing to feel guilty about. If you know the person well, be honest and let them know that you find their negativity hard to deal with. They might not even realise the impact that their mindset is having on others, and opening up this discussion may be the beginning of them finding help to change their outlook. If things don’t improve and you’re finding yourself increasingly stressed by spending time with the person, consider cutting ties. As painful as that may be, it’s more unpleasant to have to continue in a relationship which offers you nothing but stress.