We all want to be happy. We all know how difficult that can be. And the challenge that is the pursuit of happiness is compounded exponentially when faced with someone else's constant negativity. And let's be real here: it's super easy these days to just feel surrounded by the uncool vibes of unhappy people. From social media to coworkers, from friends to loved ones who maybe even think they mean well, those downers are hard to avoid.
Here's how to deal with negative people without losing your own mellow glow.
Toxic external environments create toxicity within, too. Ever work in an unhappy office? Think about cold and flu season and how often everyone at work seems to come down with the next new virus. That wasn't just bad luck. That was stress and negativity depressing not just your minds but your immune systems as well.
If you're not, by nature, a very pessimistic person, then being surrounded by someone else's negativity can make you feel like you have to fight against that other person's tide. But they stretch so far toward the bad that you end up stretched just as far over into the good in an attempt to bring them up with you. Basically, you become a rubber-band Polyanna. And aggressive optimism is exhausting. It can also be habit-forming, locking you into a role you never really wanted in the first place.
When it comes to the workplace, knowing how to deal with negative people is a major career hack. From navigating coworkers to leading a team, it really is a case of one bad apple ruining the whole barrel. Negative folks are often quite insecure, and that lack of confidence can manifest itself in gossiping, nitpicking and clique-forming. Plus, some people just like to complain. For them, it feels good to feel bad. So your Debbie Downer becomes not just a burden for the whole office to carry, but a danger to it as well.
Unhappy people beget unhappy people. Spend too much time around someone who just loves to complain, and before you know it, that culture of complaining will absorb you too. You won't be able to find a way just to be happy to be alive. You'll be too annoyed by the onslaught of suckiness you're suddenly completely surrounded by. Because negativity is infectious, it's viral, and it takes more than a good shot of Vitamin C to combat.
When forced into company with a negative person, especially at work, you're going to find your energy, and any measure of gumption you might have had at the start of the day, slowly and surely drained. Bad vibes do that, unfortunately. If you're stuck beside someone who is never, ever happy but who seems pleased to always share the details of their crappy moods, you absolutely will not be as productive as you would beside a happier coworker, or even alone.
Negativity can be infectious, of course, and quickly turn toxic in any environment. But when it comes down to figuring out how to deal with negative people, being able to tell the difference between someone who is tragically negative and someone who is actively toxic can help you handle the situation more smoothly.
A simple but effective trick is just to watch where that person is pointing their attitude. Naturally droopy people don't have a specific target in mind. Rather, it's the world itself that generally fails to impress them. Toxic people, on the other hand, aim their darts with precision, and you can bet your hat they have an agenda about it. Maybe their goal is to earn themselves brownie points at the cost of someone else's, or maybe they do what they do just for the pleasure of causing drama. Either way, once you learn to read the signs, they become fairly easy to spot.
When it comes to dealing with someone using compassion and understanding, the negative person is a far, far easier subject. We've all gone through some stuff, after all. We've all been a Sad Sally every now and again. Some people are just built a little bluer than others. And while, yes, that's totally their thing to work through, it's also easier to understand. The toxic person is less likely to be someone you can reach out to in order to try to help them. Well, not if you want to get your hand back with all the fingers still attached...
Knowing how to deal with negative people begins with learning to recognize them. Okay, that one friend in the group who never has anything nice to say, who loves drama and dishing only the sneaky tea, is Opal Obvious with her negativity. But others aren't so easy to spot.
The trick here isn't to watch them, though. It's actually to watch yourself. Are you tired after every encounter? Does the thought alone of interacting with this person make you want to take a nap? That's a big red flashing sign. Anyone who leaves you feeling drained is dangerous for your mental well being in some way. Beware!
And what is the first lesson of true kung fu mastery? According to every movie and TV show: don't fight if you don't have to. Same goes here: do not engage! Negative folks are almost universally enthusiastic about broadcasting their woes. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they share and overshare in search of some kind of validation. They want confirmation that the world really is against them, that the state of their mind, their day and even their lives aren't really their fault. Go ahead and tai chi any attempt they make to draw you in. Flow away from any topic of complaint.
And that's sad. Having a measure of compassion when faced with negativity can serve to soften the impact their mood has on yours, and this can help you respond to them in a way that maybe gets through to them. Knowing how to deal with negative people involves recognizing that, yes, some people are perpetually drippy, but that may be the only way they know (so far) to be. Or maybe they're in their feelings and really going through some stuff right now. Either way, refraining from meeting harsh with harsh could turn out to be the best thing for both of you.
This is an essential step if you're in any type of team leadership or management position. Because, sure, this person might generally be less than fun to be around, but that doesn't mean they might not also have a point. Tune yourself into what (today's) rant or moan fest is about, and weigh its relevancy. Are they harping on something that actually bears looking into? If so, sit down with them, and ask a few questions. This can be good for their morale too. Sometimes a complainer just wants to feel heard.
It's oh so easy to get drawn into the problems of someone you like, be it your favorite coworker or a longtime girlfriend. Maybe they're not always like this. Maybe that underlying streak of pessimism only pops up now and again, especially when they're stressed. And sure, trying to cheer up a friend is a no-brainer. But there are limits. Over-investing yourself in someone else's "poor me" situation or trying to fight their "it's never going to work" mentality for them will just exhaust you. Try to help, but don't forget: you are not responsible for their feelings. Their problems aren't yours.
How? By agreeing with them! "Yes, this weather does suck. Sure, that's a totally crappy thing to have happened. Yeah, life can be hard/unfair/etc sometimes." See how easy that was? If validation is all that's needed to pacify the complainer in your life, why not give them some?
Acknowledging someone's feelings doesn't cost you a dime or even a full ounce of effort. You can do it on autopilot. Because chances are they don't really want your input or a thoughtful opinion on something they can do to improve their lot. They just want you to agree with them. So do it. No sweat.
Negative folks can also be Touchy Tinas, highly reactive. If their attitude has caused enough issues where you feel a confrontation is necessary, do so with a light hand. Calling her out in front of everyone is a quick way to a meltdown, a full-on shouting match or both. Instead, ask to have a discussion in a safe and quiet place, and lead your talk in a way that addresses their attitude as well as its effect.
Asking, "Why are you always in such a bad mood?" isn't a good start, however. The better beginning is to make an observation. "I've noticed you're not too happy lately, and I'm concerned. Would you like to talk about what's going on?" Because, really, you don't know what you don't know. Maybe this person has some real-life heaviness going on in the background.
If you've made an attempt to talk about someone's attitude and their negative behavior, or if you just can't be bothered to care enough to make that attempt, listen to how and why you feel that way. Some people are Negative Nancys no matter what, and if you feel you know a person well enough to diagnose that, feel free to step back. Break up with that friend or that lover, or tell that coworker you're simply tired of hearing nothing but bad things. Let that family member know they bum you out.
Or, you know, don't. Non-confrontational drifting away is an art in and of itself. Don't feel like a coward for taking this path of least resistance, either. The direct approach isn't for everyone, and your own happiness is worth more than doing something in a way you feel you "should" even though it makes you feel uncomfortable. Go ahead and take care of you.
This is just a friendly reminder that you have total (yes, total) control over your social media. Because it's not just our face-to-face interactions that influence our happiness, not anymore. The prevalence of social media means we're assaulted all day, every day, with other people's thoughts, opinions and attitudes. And some people are real downers, plain and simple. And if they haven't yet decided to take the reins over their own mental state, why on earth should you subject yourself to the consequences?
We're all responsible for our feelings and our state of mind. Needing help and reaching out to friends or folks you trust is one thing, and you can do that online as well as in real life. But always posting to the entire world about how broke you are, the fight you had with your lover (again) or nothing but snarky comments about people you've never met? That's quite another kettle of fish. If you find your feed being invaded by someone's negativity like that, go ahead: block and banish. Unfriend and unfollow. Spend today cultivating a conscious awareness of who you follow and the effects their content has on you. And then do something about it. Your tomorrow self will thank you.
Learning how to deal with negative people is a set of skills that will see you through life as well as work obstacles. None of us can hope to avoid poor manners and crappy attitudes completely, after all. There's always going to be that one gal in the office who just sucks the energy out of any conversation, that one guy in your group of friends who drips like a long wet weekend. It's gonna happen.
The most important thing to remember is that you have control not over them but over yourself. How you respond, how far inside yourself you allow their negativity to penetrate, is entirely up to you. Happiness is a choice. And just because they aren't making it doesn't mean you can't. Do you, dude. Be happy.
Heather Adams is a writer & a business storyteller.
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