Difficult peopleResiliency & attitude

Squish negativity in the workplace

Do you work with some negatories? You know who I mean: People who are constantly focusing on the empty side of life. Their glass is never half full, in fact, they see it as practically bone dry. No matter the situation, they feel they’re losing and have nothing to gain. They live in a perpetual state of victimhood and love to regale you with tales of misery. “The sky is falling!” could be their motto. 

What can you do to cope?

Negative opinions can spread.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This only becomes problematic when someone’s negative opinion begins to spill over everything … and everyone … in the workplace. Like a cancer, it can spread. So, what to do if you’ve been subject to this toxic attitude in your workplace?

In a recent article on a related subject, I suggested that you create an environment where it is so uncomfortable to be negative, that being so is discouraged. One of my MarionSpeaks community colleagues wanted to know more. Below is her question and my response.


How do you make it uncomfortable? My 14 year old stepson lives in a negative world, focuses on the negative first, points out everything that is bad or wrong. We stop him and ask him to say 5 positive things about his day, etc. How do you make it uncomfortable to be negative?


OK, let me start by saying, communicating with teens is not my specialty. That being said, I believe that solid communication principles would still apply. In the spirit of suggestion and giving-it-a-try, here’s a few things you could try with a negative teen OR a negative client, colleague, boss or employee:

Let them vent (once). 

Everyone complains sometimes. You have bad days just like the next person. The difference is that you don’t dwell on them. You move forward. You can help your negative person do so too by firstly acknowledging and validating the loss or the hurt, like, “Gee Debbie, I can see how all that uncertainty would be stressful”. 

Sometimes people just need a safe place to vent. They’re not looking for a solution, just an outlet. This is what martinis with the girlfriends or beer and pizza with the guy friends is all about. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has such a circle of trusted confidantes and feel compelled to turn every person they meet into their sounding board. You don’t need to be their audience, though allowing the “rule of 1” (they have ONE chance to vent with you), validates their concern – you don’t need to agree, just acknowledge. 

Think of it as them confiding in you because they consider you a safe place. It’s a perverse compliment that I’m quite sure you’d be pleased to live without, so thinking of it in these positive terms will help you tolerate it, once. Adopting this “rule of 1” approach will buy you a little more patience and will help them to let go and move forward. Here’s the exception to the Rule of 1: if someone is constantly negative, and repeating themselves on the same subject, skip to the “solve” or “segue” technique below and apply it consistently.

Help them solve the complaint. 

Let me clarify — you don’t solve the complaint; they do. If someone is mentioning an issue multiple times and not moving to action to resolve it, here’s your chance to give a gentle nudge, to remind them that they have more power than they may realize, and that they have a choice. In any situation, you have 3 choices:

  1. Accept the situation — meaning you are completely, 100% OK with it in your heart and have no regrets or compunction to continue to discussing it
  2. Change your behaviour — you can’t change other people, just yourself. Change the way you respond to people or a situation and it changes the outcome.
  3. Leave — physically or figuratively, leave the situation. If you choose not to physically escape (say you’re in school, can’t stand your prof and need this final credit for your degree, so decide to stay and tough it out), you can decide to leave emotionally and not get pulled into the vortex of conflict or drama. I personally have voted with my feet and left organizations that no longer reflected my core values. Whether you stay or leave any situation is your choice. Soon as you understand that principal, it’s empowering.

If your negative person is sounding like a broken record (LOL, there’s a whole generation that won’t know where that expression came from … I’m showing my age!), ask them what they’re doing to solve it. 

Choosing a supportive and non-confrontational language is critical. It could sound something like, “It sounds like those guys are putting you through the grills. You can’t control their actions, so what could you do differently to get different results?”. The point of this question is to demonstrate that they have more control and power than they may realize. Help them identify it, own it and for Pete’s sake, put it to use.

Segue to a different topic,

As a communicator, it’s a very rare case when I advise people to walk away; this would be one of those cases. I don’t mean be rude or abrupt. Rather, find a segue to a different topic, “Oh gee, that reminds me …”, or physically remove yourself from the situation, “Excuse me Susan, I’m on a time crunch, so I’m going to get back to my office and get that report done” or, “Tom, that’s a tough one. Hey, did you hear about the new project …” When your complainer sees that you are not their audience, that you will not give them and their complaints energy to bring them to life, they will (eventually) stop trying. You want to maintain the relationship, just get rid of the complaints.

Say something to them.

Sometimes subtlety is wasted. If you’re spending energy stewing about the negative person and their attitude, if it’s keeping you up at night, if you’ve tried all the steps above to no avail, it might be time to grab the bull by the horns and stare it down. Come from a place of love and support, not attack. Let them know that you value the relationship and the person. 

It could sound something like, “Betty, I can tell that this is a difficult time for you and everyone handles this type of situation differently. My concern is that us talking about it constantly is a downer and I don’t want that negative energy to spill into our relationship. When you’re ready to talk about solutions, you know I’m hear to help you. And there’s other people who can help you too (Employee Assistance Program, Human Resources, your friends, family, etc.). You’re a smart and strong person 

(NOTE: this compliment you offer must be genuine – think of something you admire about this person and tell them that so they can draw upon this strength to move forward)… that’s why I know you’ll get through this. I have every confidence that you’ll figure this out.” Them knowing that you’re there for them, that there are options of people to help, that they have strengths to draw from — these are all supportive, strong statements that will help them let go, move forward, and help you set boundaries.

Good news: Positive attitude is also contagious.

Dealing with negative people is draining. It’s no fun to walk into a workplace and be dowsed with negativity. Find solace in knowing that as much as negativity can spread, research suggests that a positive attitude is equally contagious. 

One of the reasons people change behaviour is when it becomes too painful to remain with status quo. Make it uncomfortable for negative attitudes to breed in your workplace and your life. It will make those twists and turns that life throws in your direction just a little more tolerable. 

Keep smiling — not just because it feels good or that your mind can’t recognize the difference between a real or fake smile (yes, your body will release feel-good drugs in either scenario) — do it because you’ll keep people guessing what you’ve been up to, LOL! Here’s to glasses half full. Correction … go ahead, and fill ‘er up. 


Until next time, here’s to …
Better communication, Better business, Better life,
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author


© 2012-2019 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

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Communication consultant, author, and professional speaker Marion Grobb Finkelstein motivates and teaches individuals and organizations across Canada and beyond, how to improve morale, confidence and productivity by changing how they communicate. Get weekly hands-on tips by signing up for “Marion’s Communication Tips” at www.MarionSpeaks.com

Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.

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