Are You a Negativity Carrier or the Antidote?

by Alli Polin on May 10, 2013

How Do You Engage Your Always Negative Coworker?

Imagine:

You’ve just started your day and are feeling good about what’s possible.  Your coffee tastes perfect, the sun is shining and you look up with a smile on your face when you hear the knock on your door.  In breezes in Ann Oying who immediately starts to engage you with today’s latest headache.

Apparently, customers are bound to start complaining any moment about the less than perfect job the team is doing.  Scope creep is about to make everyone’s head explode but how can we deliver anything less than “wow?” Oh, and did you know that the cafeteria is going to be closing 15 minutes early on Friday and that means you will have to buy your afternoon soda at 3:45 instead of 4:00?  The world is not fair. 

You try to stay focused on what Ann has to say and as your head starts to spin; you take a sip of your coffee desperately trying to remember how good you felt just 20 minutes ago.

Moment of Choice

Commiserate:

Get ready to throw your hands up in the air and start placing blame.  The team stinks!  The customer doesn’t know what they really want!  No soda at 4:00?  Unacceptable!  Negativity is like an infectious disease and when you commiserate, you’ve just become a carrier tooUh oh.

Solve:

The second you ask with great concern, “Really??” Ann’s headache becomes your shared migraine.   You’re determined to get rid of the pain and fix it at all costs.  You’re not a negativity carrier but you’re like human Advil and Ann knows that when you take responsibility to solve the issue at hand, she doesn’t have to step up.  All Ann has to do is bring a dire enough situation your way and you’ll take care of the rest.  Be warned: If you’re solution doesn’t work, Ann will be sure to let everyone know she never agreed with your line of thinking anyway.

Acknowledge What Is:

Offer a plain and simple: “I hear you.” Not only does it get you off the hook for immediately solving or buying into problem but also let’s Ann know that she’s being heard and that her perspective matters.  Oftentimes people tell everyone and their grandmother about problems because they want to be seen and know that they matter.  Some people have learned that they way they get the most attention is to point out problems. Recognize the challenges with sincere appreciation for the communication without sinking into shared worry and despair.

Engage:

Ask: “What do you think we should do?”  Don’t volunteer what you think needs to be done, just wait.  Show Ann that you value her experience and her ability not only to identify high-impact problems but also define solutions.  Engage Ann in brainstorming and hold her accountable for action too.  If you take it all on, she will move from room to room infecting everyone in the office with her negative vibe.  If Ann shares responsibility for improving outcomes, she’s on the hook too and you’re helping her to step up as a leader in the process.

Negativity Carriers

People like Ann are negativity carriers.  In the name of being a “realist” carriers seem to exclusively be the bearer of bad news and somehow never seem to have any good news to share.  They are passionate, committed and engaged about the issues at hand and oftentimes make valid points, but rarely share faith about the efficacy of potential solutions.   With just the roll of the eyes or the way they sit in their chair filled with tension at a meeting, even without saying a word, it’s clear that things are not going well and you can feel their message with every bone in your body.

Antidotes

Quite simply, the best way to combat negativity carriers is to focus on making things go right instead of fixing what’s wrong.   You’ll never get rid of negative energy by being unrealistic, ignoring or buying in.  The antidote to negativity is to let others know that they matter and enroll them in solutions instead of problems.

Be the antidote!  Refocus your energy from closing gaps to build on strengths and invite others on your team to do the same.

What do you choose?

(Photo credit)

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Lalita Raman May 10, 2013 at 7:50 am

Beautifully expressed and this can be any of our days Alli. I love that statement “best way to combat negativity carriers is to focus on making things go right instead of fixing what’s wrong”.

Our mind can get carried away by focussing on the negative and as difficult as it may be and no matter how vulnerable one feels, it is best to focus on makings things go right.

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Alli Polin May 10, 2013 at 9:16 am

It was an ah-ha that hit me hard a few years ago. We always have a choice: focus on what’s going wrong or making things go right. I know which one I’d prefer! Many thanks for your comment, Lalita! You’re so right, our minds can get very focused on the negative and when self-protection kicks inm it’s hard to combat. Making things go right is the place to start!

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Stephen Lahey May 10, 2013 at 9:10 am

I tend to use humor. This normally shifts the mood — or — the annoying person gets confused and stops complaining at me. It’s a win either way! Hehe…

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Alli Polin May 10, 2013 at 9:18 am

HA! Am totally picturing that… with their mouth hanging open ready for the next “sky is falling remark” and you stop them in their tracks. In all seriousness, humor can be a very powerful tool when used not to make fun of someone but to break the mood and change the tone to a more positive path. Thanks so much for the comment!

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Blair May 10, 2013 at 10:50 am

Great article, Alli! Yes, humor is amazing and being the antidote is an important yet sometimes difficult role to master. I once had a boss who would come hang over my cubicle wall and launch into his life’s woes. At first I thought, aw, he trusts me! But then, even though my work was kinda boring, I thought I would rather be doing it than listening to his droning. But he was my boss!!! Saying, “I hear you” became an invitation to keep him coming. I realized maybe what he was looking for was some sweetness. I got a tin of hard candy. When he came over, I would open the drawer, take out the tin, and offer him some candy. He seemed a little confused. I did it again the next time. He stopped coming. When in doubt, try a little “sugar!”

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:27 am

Blair – That is a great story! Talk about sending a message – or being unwilling to receive any more crap! What a kind way to end the behavior – by changing yours. Also, appreciate that it’s not always about listening… there are only 24 hours in a day and eventually complaining needs to transform into action or we’ll forever be at a standstill.

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Terri Klass May 10, 2013 at 11:46 am

Thanks for magnificently tackling such an important challenge for many organizations, Alli! Negativity can be a contagious disease on a team. Involving the negative person in any decision making is so effective, because it does hold them to some accountability. Your other point about people just needing to vent is so true. I have seen this in both a professional and personal situation. People just want to share how they are feeling and aren’t necessarily looking for us to solve their problem. Thanks again for bringing this to light.

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:30 am

Terri – A need to vent does show up in both professional and personal situations. In fact, I’ve called friends and family to vent and they tried to solve… say this, do that. I knew I was there only to vent so I quickly inserted into the conversation: I know what to do, I just want someone to listen to me! It’s like an ah-ha for people when they realize that they are not responsible for finding my solutions and I’m going to do that on my own. Appreciate that you raised this point!

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Chris Jordan May 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm

I like how Stephen says “stop complaining at me. ” The at is a key word choice here and completely shifts the perspective…

Alli this post was great and the timing amazing. Going through a negative situation makes this difficult but somehow we have to work through it.

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:33 am

I agree with you, Chris! “at me” … Sometimes people come to us to complain just because they want to speak it out loud and it’s better to be facing a human than talking alone to the wall ;) (or so it feels on the receiving end)

Also appreciate that it IS hard to work through a negative situation and with negative people – it can really stink and be a huge energy drainer but there really is no way around it, only through.

So glad it came at the right time! Love when that happens!

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Peggy May 10, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I find that my loudest, most persistent ” Ann Oying” is my own inner critic. Its like a spit personality. there is “Peggy” who is optimistic, creative,capable, and believes there is a solution to every problem; then there is “Ms. Oying” who believes that there is a potential disaster in every action and ANYTHING that goes wrong is somehow Peggy’s fault.
I find that treating Ms. Oying as a separate person outside myself works for me. I treat here just as I would anyone else. I don’t fight with her, because she’ll just fire back. I speak to her in the same manner that you have outlined here. Ms. Oying still comes around regularly, but she’s not as loud, and she leaves quickly.
Your blog has quickly become one of my tools to debate Ms. Oying.

Thank you Alli,
Peggy

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:37 am

Peggy – I totally know what you’re talking about!! I do that too! It’s the little gremlin that sits on my shoulder that takes my positive energy and tries to pop it, as if it were a balloon.

Love that you can use tools to tell Ms. Oying where she can stick it without picking a fight (in a very respectful way of course). Our most creative, passionate and capable selves always deserve to win out in the end.

Sincerely appreciate your comment and important insights into what so many of us experience!

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Dr. Christi Hegstad May 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Love this, Alli! And I love how you describe the “moment of choice.” In the midst of a Negative Nelly (or Ann Oying ;) rant, it can be easy to drift into their mood – unless we make the conscious choice not to. Make that choice enough times and that becomes your habit, your new default. Thanks for the post!

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:40 am

Christi – Negative people, Ann, Nelly and all the rest have a powerful pull, that’s for sure! We need to notice when we’re getting sucked in and an awareness coupled with truly knowing that we are at choice – we can end the conversation, enroll them in solutions, or give them sweets like Blair Glaser suggested.

Thanks for reminder that when we become more aware of our choices, and make them… that’s the road to creating habits. Appreciate your insights, Christi!

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Dan Forbes May 10, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Love it, Alli. “Negativity is like an infectious disease..” I hear this sometimes when on employee starts complaining and another joins in, then another. It’s so easy for people to get infected. Thanks for sharing some antidote.

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:41 am

Dan – It does spread like wildfire! People become a chorus of naysayers and negativity. Especially when faced with new challenges, a chorus of negative people singing their negative song can completely derail any potential for success. Leaders can stop the spread before it gets too out of control. Thanks, Dan!

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Karen Jolly May 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Oh how those “negativity carriers” love you to take a nice big bite! :) I loved this post Alli!! What a great reminder that when faced with someone who is dumping on you fast – that you can just let them know they are heard. Not taking on the problems is the key -although they would love you to! Tremendous to realize they need to be accountable for the negativity they spread. So good for us “fixers” to hear again and again! :) Thank you Alli!

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Alli Polin May 11, 2013 at 6:44 am

Karen, they do love it when we dig in with them! The old saying, misery loves company, certainly is based in truth. So many of us in the helping profession started as fixers because we want people to be – do – have – experience their best life… it’s hard to transition to the perspective that truly loving and making a difference is to help someone see their patterns, behaviors and support them to find their own solutions. You are a wonderful reminder of the power of love and transformation!

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Jon Mertz May 11, 2013 at 9:06 am

I choose “Solve!” There can be brief moments of dancing around a problem, but we need to jump in and determine the best path forward. We need a problem-solving mindset!

Be the antidote! What a great way to think about it, Alli!

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Alli Polin May 12, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Thanks, Jon! The more we can empower and encourage everyone to own a problem solving mindset the better! “It’s not my problem” is apathetic and won’t lead us anywhere. Many thanks for emphasizing this point!

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Alice Chan May 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Great post, Alli. You’re so right. Often times, when people complain, they just want to get heard. Someone told me recently that women especially become negative when they really want to connect. Not sure I completely buy into this gender conclusion, but the point well taken that we need to listen for the subtext, as you pointed out in your post. When the complaining isn’t just habitual venting that really isn’t aimed at solving a problem, then engaging the complainer to own solving their problem is definitely the way to go! Thanks again, Alli!

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Alli Polin May 14, 2013 at 12:55 am

Alice – What an interesting piece of info to share > women become negative when they want to connect. I have seen women act nasty because they were looking for attention and did not know how to articulate their feelings / needs. Like you, I’ll bet men do it just as often. Always appreciate your insights and sharing! Thanks, Alice!

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