A Positive Approach to Dealing With Negative People

“People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Not long ago, I happened to meet a lovely woman who, like me, was selling her house. We started to have a nice chat, and she told me that she was selling the place because she was getting divorced. It was her second marriage, and she was deeply sad about the breakup. She went on to explain that her second husband and her three sons from her first marriage were having difficulty getting along, and she’d had to make a choice.

I could tell that her heart was aching. Her eyes filled with tears and she started to cry. My eyes welled up, too. But instead of crying, I reminded her of the great things she had in her life, such as her beautiful little boys and her close relationship with them. I told her that after my divorce I’d realized that I was lucky to have had the experience of having my husband in my life, even if it was for a short period, because it gave me the opportunity to cherish and remember the good times. I encouraged her to believe that a new world of possibilities awaited her as she entered this new stage of her life.

As she began to connect with her own faith and optimism, I could see a smile begin to appear on her face. I was glad that I’d chosen not to be pulled into her sadness. I could still feel a sense of harmony and connection to her and experience sympathy, but rather than commiserate, I’d opted to lift her up… and raised myself up in the process.

Sometimes people won’t respond to your efforts to help them switch into a more positive emotional state. In such a case, it’s okay to simply let them be alone with their feelings until they’re ready.

Several years ago, for example, my friend Patricia and I had plans to meet at a restaurant and go to a concert afterward. I showed up at the restaurant feeling fantastic and on top of the world, and I was excited about the upcoming performance. Patricia showed up in a foul mood. Normally, she’s a happy and fun lady, but not that evening.

As soon as we started talking, it was blatantly clear that we weren’t vibrating at the same energy level. I wanted to help switch Patricia’s emotional energy, but no matter what I said or tried to do to uplift her, she was staying firmly grounded in her negativity.

However, as much as Patricia was determined not to join me in my positive state, I was equally determined not to join her in her negative one. So we had dinner, working our way through a conversation that was like a ping-pong match: Negative energy would fly across the table, and positive energy would be sent back in the other direction. Back and forth. Back and forth.

At the concert, we had tickets for seats in a box with a dozen other people. Patricia managed to find a chair in a corner. She now had an “I want to be alone” look about her. I understood that she needed to work through her emotions and, knowing her well, I had faith that she would do just that. So I left her alone. But once the concert began and everyone was on their feet dancing, Patricia was dancing too – and it turned out to be a fabulous evening for both of us after all.

There will be times when you’ll have to deal with difficult, negative people, perhaps because they’re relatives, co-workers, or neighbors and you don’t want to (or can’t) avoid them. They may not be able or willing to shift out of their negativity, but – instead of allowing these emotional vampires to suck you dry – you’ll feel positive and empowered when you respond in one of the following ways:

  • Sympathize.

When you say “I can understand why you might feel that way” or “I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” you’re expressing compassion and kindness toward someone who could use some positive energy, without being drawn into that person’s negativity yourself.

  • Suggest a more positive emotion that they could be experiencing.

You can do this in a subtle way. If someone asks me, “Doesn’t it make you furious when drivers won’t move out of the passing lane?” I say, “No, actually, it makes me curious” or “No, it makes me wonder why they’re so oblivious to the traffic around them.” When I was recently asked if I was upset that my house hadn’t yet sold, I said, “No, I’m not upset. I’ve priced the house right, houses are selling all over the place, and I know that I only need one buyer.”

  • Offer a more positive way of describing the situation.

If someone complains “It’s so chaotic around here,” say “Never a dull moment. I’m glad we’re so flexible and able to go with the flow!”

  • Suggest a less extreme way of looking at it.

When you hear someone use extreme words such as never, always, everyone, or no one, gently correct their negatively distorted point of view. Say, for example, “I can see how you’d feel that way after what happened, but I have faith that not every contractor is a crook.”

  • Use humor.

In response to “I can’t believe how impossible the traffic is on this road. I don’t know why I even bother getting into my car,” you could say “I know! Fred Flintstone could pedal faster! Where’s our private jet when we need it?” It’s hard to stay mad or unhappy when you’re giggling.

  • Point out the positive aspects of the situation.

If someone says, “I can’t believe how lousy this hockey coach is,” you might say, “Well, he seems to be able to get the boys to do their best individually and support each other as a team – and I know my son is having a great time playing with him.” And if you hear complaints about someone’s aches and pains, you might say, “Well, I’m glad that if you’re not feeling well, at least I can be here to cheer you up!” (And then smile.)

  • Gently and lovingly point out what they can do to rectify the situation.

When people are venting, they usually don’t want to hear advice. But after they calm down, they’ll often take in and seriously contemplate the words of wisdom they’ve been given.

When you hear a complaint about a political issue, for example, you could say, “I agree that it’s very important” – and then encourage that person to write about it to the newspaper or their local representative… or even run for office. Remind people of their power over their own lives so they can start connecting with more positive emotions.

  • Emphasize the present moment and the hope for the future.

If someone says, “It really stinks that my car had to go to the shop last week,” reply “Isn’t it great that it’s in the past now?” Then you can switch to a positive subject, saying something along the lines of “So, what are you going to do now that your car is fixed? Are you going to drive somewhere this weekend just to get away and have some fun?”

  • Remind them of their gifts.

People who see the glass as half-empty can sometimes stop their string of complaints when you remind them of the positive things they have.

Regularly dealing with a difficult person can be draining. It takes a lot of energy to avoid getting sucked into their negativity and keep the switches on your own positive emotions high.

If the negativity of someone else becomes so great that you’re actually being abused – verbally or physically – and they’re unwilling or unable to change their behavior, you must pull away. When you let someone mistreat you, you’re being unkind and unloving toward yourself by giving that person permission to abuse you… and that’s not okay.

[Ed. Note: This article was adapted from Peggy McColl’s book Your Destiny Switch: Master Your Key Emotions, and Attract the Life of Your Dreams.][Ed. Note: Become a more persuasive writer and speaker … build your self-confidence and intellect … increase your attractiveness to others … just by spending 10 VERY enjoyable minutes a day with ETR’s new Words to the Wise CD Library.]
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  • Alex Curbelo

    What do you do when the person experiencing negativity is with you for the better part of the day, like someone you live with? I find that the closeness makes it difficult to retreat and not get sucked into the negativity. It’s hard to rise above it when your energy gets taken in a short amount of time. I do most of the advice you suggested intuitively, but I feel drained afterward. I keep reminding myself that this an acute situation, meaning that the current issues are genuinely upsetting and scary, like a serious health diagnosis leading to an uncertain future, for instance, and it is transitory. I say to myself, “He/she really doesn’t mean it what he/she said about me, pointing out some of my flaws that are true, but it is used as a weapon to hurt me because that person is hurting him/her self. This will pass…this will pass”