Monday, 31 March 2014

Managing Merchants of Misery: - A positive approach to managing Negative People in Your Life


The world can be a horrible, cruel place – and at the same time it can be an abundant, wonderful place. These are both truths.  (Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross).



Do you know someone who is an “emotional vampire”?  You know those people who suck the life out of you with their complaints and commentary about everything that is wrong with both the world and the people in it. Merchants of Misery who peddle doom and gloom even when the sun is shining. It’s difficult to stay positive when times are tough and you are struggling with paying the rent or mortgage without also having to deal with the “glass half empty” personality types.  The obvious solution is to walk away from them, but this is easier said than done. We could always walk away from the neighbour with a bad attitude or the gossip in the local mothers group, but we can’t walk away from a spouse, parent, sibling or work colleague with a negative attitude. 


So, how does one deal with negative people who you can’t avoid? Today I want to share with you some  discerning ways of dealing with the negativity that comes your way from those you love and care about in a more positive and effective way.

Barbara Fredreickson in her book “Positivity” outlines three (3) techniques to manage needless negativity in close relationships. They are: modify the social situation, attend to it differently and change its meaning. She describes these as “social aikido”.  Aikido is Japanese martial arts described by its founder as the “art of peace”. The guiding principles of Aikido are to neutralise aggression without causing harm to yourself or your attacker.  These strategies are intended then to promote harmony and neutralise the negativity within the relationship.

 Let’s examine the three strategies in more detail.

Techniques 1 – Modify the Situation

  1. Examine your own part in the interaction 
    In attempting to modify the situation we need to have a good understanding of what part we play in the interaction. Therefore, initially you need to examine the typical situations in which you interact with the person. Then reflect on and examine your contributions to the exchange and see what surfaces.  You will need to be totally honest with yourself and really dig down if you want to know how you might contribute to the negativity that arises from the interaction.  Ask yourself if you inadvertently feed this person’s negativity, bait them with your words or actions, make assumptions about them or pigeon hole them? A good example is the interactions I have with my Aunty Anna. In the last few years she has developed some minor medical issues which have impacted on her health and general outlook.    When I see her I always brace myself in preparation for the moaning and complaining. I think “Ok. Here we go again.  She’s going to tell me all her problems and how sick she is and how bad she feels.” I then respond to anything she has to say by cutting her short to prevent a full blown whinge.  I feel the tension in my body and I mirror and feed her negativity with verbal and non-verbal body language.

    Once you have made an assessment of your own contribution to the situation you can adjust some of your responses to the person. For example,with my Aunty Anna I might be more open an prepared to listen to her problems and then express more warmth and empathy.  
  2. Set the Agenda for the interaction
    Some negative people are triggered by certain topics or situations so be proactive in choosing to engage in or discuss activities that will inspire you and your significant other.  For example, one of my friends turns into a self-victimiser whenever we talk about work. No matter what I say, she’ll keep complaining about everything in her job, which becomes quite a conversation dampener. As a one off conversation is not likely to address this entrenched type of negativity I try to change the subject to a safe topic such as music, movies or anther common interest. This refocuses the direction and energy of the interaction and helps promote more positive emotions.  
  3. Reframe the Negative Message
    The most reliable way to steer the negative person towards positivity is to manifest positivity yourself. For instance, blaming the negative person for making you feel negative is not going to help; in fact, it would be particularly ironic if you advised the negative person to “stop blaming others” if you are blaming them for bringing your mood down!

    In addition, human nature is to respond in kind.  I would highly recommend that when negativity or anger surface in your interactions you curb your tenancy to follow suit as this will only escalate the problem. I suggest you try an alternative approach, either by injecting some compassion or humour into the situation or reframing the negative message. Fredricksen also advises us to be ”open to the kernels of truth in the negative messages delivered, yet gently offer positives reframes.” She suggests it is possible to convert their “half empty” to half-full”. For example when I resigned from my job last year my mother pointed out all the negative things that could happen.  I acknowledged that it might have been a rash decision given the current economic situation but pointed out it would give me more time to spend with her.  (She had raised this as an issue for her on other occasions). Not surprisingly, research shows that relationships fare better when one partner breaks the cycle of negativity 

Technique  2 – Attend Differently

Negative people have a tendency to highlight the problems and undesirable aspects of any situation. They also seem to exaggerate any harmful consequences as a result making any predicament seem a lot worse than it might be in reality.

One way to deal with this is to purposefully attend to the other person’s positive qualities and identify what you appreciate about them. What are the person’s strengths and how do they apply them to various situations?  For instance, my husband is very good at making lists and planning.  When we are discussing the particulars of a holiday I need to focus on this as a strength instead of seeing his attention to detail as micromanaging me.  I should express my appreciation of his attention to detail. Likewise, if my husband warns me of the dire consequences of taking what I think is a healthy risk; I tell him calmly, I appreciate his concern and thank him for highlighting possible negative consequences.  

Scientific studies have documented that, in relationships, the area where you choose to focus your attention and devote your energy and words grow in strength and significance over time.  Therefore, if you concentrate on the positives you will increase positivity in your interactions with that person.

People like being around positive people, so the negative person will eventually appreciate your positive outlook and attitudes. People also like feeling positive themselves. So, as the negative person interacts with you he will like himself better and hopefully develop a more optimistic attitude.  Don't expect changes over night - think more glacial movement. 

 Technique  3 – Change Meaning

 Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.  ~Carl Jung

"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment." 
 Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck 


This technique suggests that we experiment with the meaning we give to a particular situation.  In other words,  could this person or
situation be a lesson in disguise.  If you reframe your time as a challenge you might be mindful in the way you react. Be more compassionate and less judgmental.  Recognize that the negative person usually means no harm they are just caught up in their own negativity. Recognize that he is just offering a different point of view. Don't take it personally. Sieve out the underlying message and see if there is anything you can learn from what was said.  Think what is the particular lesson I can learn from this situation.  Remember the persons negativity is not yours, but your response to it is. So be mindful of your own reactions. 

I invite you to try these strategies yourself in your interpersonal relationships that require a bit of tweaking in regards to negativity.  

If you want to know more about the science behind positivity then Positivity by Barbara L Fredrickson, Ph.D is a good place to start.  I really enjoyed the book especially the Tool Kit section. It's published in the US by Three Rivers Press (Random House), 2009.