How to Deal with Negative Nancy

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Posted October 2, 2012 by Marcy Farrey in On the Ladder

We all have our “Negative Nancy” moments — moments when we become frustrated and discouraged. Still, when you have to be around a lot of negativity, it’s hard to be positive. Some people will come back with a negative response no matter what you say. Maybe they’re always like this, or maybe they’re going through a rough time. So what can you do to help them, and help you?

In his blog post “How to Respond to Negativity” on hbr.org, Peter Bregman says our usual go-to responses just don’t work. Answer negativity with negativity, and you just get a never-ending cycle of bad energy. Answer with positivity, and you still get negativity:

Here’s why: Countering someone’s negativity with your positivity doesn’t work because it’s argumentative. People don’t like to be emotionally contradicted and if you try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel something, they’ll only feel it more stubbornly. And if you’re a leader trying to be positive, it comes off even worse because you’ll appear out of touch and aloof to the reality that people are experiencing.

To really get past the negativity, you have to try a different tactic. Bregman has three helpful suggestions:

  • “Understand how they feel and validate it.” Listen to what they say, even if it’s hard to do so. Let them know that you understand how they feel. No one wants to feel as if their feelings are being dismissed.
  • “Find a place to agree with them.” Look for the common ground. Maybe the situation they are negative about really is a tough one — acknowledge that, or acknowledge the parts that you also have trouble with.
  • “Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it.” Find what they think is working, or what is going right. Encourage that positivity, and put the attention onto it. Bregman says: “The idea is to give positive attention to positive feeling. And to offer concrete hope. It’s concrete because it’s based on actual positive feelings people already have, rather than harping on positive feelings you think they should have.”

While it might seem contradictory to validate negative feelings in any way, understanding is key to helping everyone move forward. Think of your lowest points — would you have taken it well if someone made you feel as if your emotions and reactions were wrong? Would you like it if someone oversimplified a problem or issue important to you?

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of Negative Nancy moments, especially when I’m anxious about something. My family has had to listen to the worst of it, and even my sister has thrown her hands in the air and said, “You have a negative response for everything I suggest!” We all have these moments that we have to overcome, so if you see someone going through it, always seek common ground and encourage positivity, rather than forcing it. You might find that you get a different result.

Bregman offers a great, personal take on dealing with negativity. Read the rest of his article here.


About the Author

Marcy Farrey

Marcy Farrey is a videographer, writer, and editor. In her previous life, she worked as a broadcast news reporter and producer in Lincoln, Nebraska and as a writer and producer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University. Learn more about Marcy on her website www.marcyfarrey.com.

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