We have all bumped into them at one point or another: a “Negative Nellie”, a constant complainer, a perpetual victim, or an overbearing aggressor. Often these negative personality types have a transient existence in your life; they’re the people in front of you at the coffee shop, sitting next to you on the train, or the potential partner at an awful first date.
Dealing with these personalities in passing is test of our willpower enough, but when it’s the people who you care about, and whose company you otherwise enjoy (outside of their negative behavior), it can be even more difficult to navigate.
So how do you preserve ties, build rapport and strengthen a bond with an in-law, boss or best friend who falls into one of these categories? It is possible, and the experts are here to tell you how.
Don’t Argue—Agree with Them
Regardless of which type of negative personality you’re dealing with, the golden rule, said Tina Gilbertson, psychotherapist and the author of Constructive Wallowing, is to never argue. “Any attempt to cheer them up or show them the errors in their thinking will make them dig their heels in, and make them even more negative,” she explained.
Further, you can engage in what marriage and family therapist, Jane Johnson, calls “emotional aikido” when dealing with someone else’s anger, anxiety or negativity. The idea is that you meet that person where they’re at and use their energy instead of fighting against it.
For example, let’s say grandma throws out the, “Why aren’t you married yet?” question. “There are many responses that could be given. However, a response of, ‘Gram, I am just waiting to meet a woman as wonderful as you are! You and Gramps set the bar very high!’ allows her to feel validated, and also gives her a compliment,” explained Johnson.
In essence, you are working to “disarm” the person by agreeing with them. Johnson explained that typically people have a “dance” of a conversation where the same sensitive topics are brought up over and over again, and the same insensitive comments poke the wound repeatedly. By changing your response, the “dance” changes, too.
“It is certainly a difficult thing to implement, especially because of the emotional connection with family members,” said Johnson. “It takes practice and patience. However, many of my clients find that there is immediate success with this technique.”
Change Your Perspective
The majority of people, yourself included, just want to feel heard and have their opinions and feelings validated. In many cases, negative behavior may simply be a bid for this connection.
“The complainer might just want to build common ground, the victim might want to feel heard and the worrier might just need to have a chat,” said Alyce Pilgrim, a mindset and life coach. “When we change the way we look at things, the things you look at change. Their intention—I would almost put money on it—is not to be ‘that’ person; they just might be perceived as that.”
Ask Solution-Focused Questions
“When someone is being negative [or is worrying] about a problem or situation, ask them what they perceive the possible solutions to be,” suggested Joshua Evans, a behavioral coach and author of Enthusiastic You! “Work to transition them from a victim mentality to the paradigm of problem solver. Make them feel like they can be the hero of this situation. Then encourage them to strategize ways to overcome their problem.”
If this is someone you see often and care about, and yet they are particularly negative, have an honest conversation and express your concern. This is especially important on days when the negativity seems to be at full throttle.
“Go gentle. Ask them what’s happening in their life, what’s going on, and let them know you care,” said Pilgrim. “There may be something underlying their traits or they might not be aware of how they are coming across.”
Even if you’ve become a master at averting negative behavior, weaving through a sea of negative people with Matrix-like agility, there will come a time that you need to confront someone you care about. Let these people know that you’re affected by their negativity, being sure to place blame on the attitude instead of the person, suggested Evans.
“Often our family and friends look for outlets of their negative emotions and attempt to take comfort in sharing their ‘woe is me’ attitude with people they feel comfortable talking to,” he explained. “While it is an honor for them to respect you enough to share their burdens, it is up to you to set boundaries about how they can present negative things.”
Setting boundaries means you first express your issue with the attitude. If your boundaries aren’t respected, you can gently, but clearly, re-visit the conversation. Moving forward, you can stop the conversation and walk away politely, or use phrases like, “I’m not comfortable talking about this,” or “I’m working on being more optimistic in my life, so I am not going to be able to focus on negative things right now.”
A shift in conversation to something neutral and enjoyable for both of you also helps. Maybe it’s about something positive that just happened in that person’s life, like a recent birthday party or a new job offer, or maybe it’s about a subject you’ve bonded over before, like your shared love of yoga or a book you’ve both read. The shift towards a positive topic may just leave that negativity in the dust.