3 Ways to Respond to Negative People at Work

Negative talk is draining. And most of us have at least one person in our work orbit who can be counted on to bring the complaining. We have all heard the good advice about letting go of negative relationships and cutting the toxic people out of our lives, and hopefully we are committed to guarding ourselves from destructive alliances.

That commitment, however, doesn’t answer the question about what to do with those exhausting co-workers who always want to spotlight the things that are wrong. We can’t exactly cut our negative co-workers out of our lives. So how can we interact with them in a way that is positive and solution-oriented?

First of all, realize the broader context of the human experience. According to Gallup’s studies on employee engagement, human beings have a negativity bias. That’s right, for some reason our attention is drawn toward the bad things more naturally than it is drawn toward the good.

So, in a very real sense, your co-workers who seem to be so negative, are just a more extreme version of how all of us naturally tilt. Acknowledging this human tendency doesn’t make someone else’s complaining more palatable, but it can create a place of compassion in your own heart toward those who seem to be caught in a negativity cycle. What they see and what they feel is very real to them.

Secondly, learn how to de-personal the discouraging communication. You may unconsciously assume that you are at the center of your boss’s complaints or that your co-worker is looking to you to solve the problems. When you sense this moment of internal stress, take that as a sign that it is time to pause. Stop your thoughts for even a second to remind yourself that whatever you are hearing does not have to be about you.

Often when people are unhappy, they are expressing their thoughts and feelings from more of a need to speak or process rather than a desire to solve. Your ability to settle yourself and create an internal pause will allow you to show up as a listener, which is absolutely vital to achieve success with the following strategy.

Now that you have shifted your posture to one of listener, you are ready to employ questions to change the focus and even the direction of the negative conversation. Here are your three ways to respond to negative people at work:

1. Ask “What do you want?”

The point of this question is to shift the person’s focus from what is happening to what they want to be true instead. You never know what you may hear. Your co-worker may say she wants respect or rest or an updated computer—and she may have to think long and hard before she can even answer the question. She may have never thought about the problem from this angle.

Be careful about your tone and non-verbals when using this question. “What do you want?” can easily sound sarcastic and off-putting. But a listening ear can appropriately offer this question with empathy and concern for the other person.

2. Ask “What about this discussion is important for me?”

When a co-worker is complaining about things at work, most often he is speaking his frustration without regard for the impact or relevance of the topic for the hearer. With this question, you are directing his attention to his audience. You are also expressing curiosity around how this might connect to you with some degree of openness.

Be prepared for anything from, “Well, I guess it doesn’t really have anything to do with you.” to “Actually I think it is your responsibility to stand up to the boss about this.” The magic of this question for you is that it moves you from an absorber of someone else’s negative emotion to a clarifier about what your role, if any, should be.

3. Ask “How will we know (or measure) if we improve this issue?”

If you have made some progress in helping clarify what the person wants and how you might be participate in improving things, don’t miss the opportunity to define how progress will be determined. Never assume that your co-worker’s thoughts of success and your own ideas are the same. In fact, you should assume they are not and seek to create a shared measure for the desired outcome.

This question can be a difficult one. Griping about what’s wrong is much easier than describing what an improved situation would be. And this vision of a better result needs to be specific enough that an objective person could answer yes or no to its achievement. So keep in mind, this question may require time to think and may also invite a follow up discussion to continue the work of creating the answer.

No one can completely strategize away the impact of working with negative people. People will notice what they don’t like and they will tend to verbalize those things to the people around them. This tendency is universal. But how much you let this pattern of our shared experience affect you has a lot to do with how prepared you are to respond.

With the ability to create an internal pause and then employ one or more of these open-ended questions, you can often re-direct a negative conversation down a more productive path. Try it and then try it again. It will take some time and practice—and it is worth the investment.

One final word of advice. If you sense frustration and negativity in yourself about something at work, you can also use these same three questions to help yourself create clarity before you become the draining complainer at work. The last thing any of our co-workers need is more of that.

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