One of my EAP clients recently compared the effect of a colleague’s unrelenting negativity to a toxic cloud of second hand smoke: irritating, suffocating, and pervasive.
It got me thinking about how challenging it can be to interact with coworkers who radiate negativity. Work is already stressful enough with its variable mix of time pressures, customer issues, workloads and interruptions.
It’s not just work stress we are managing either. We are also contending with the always shifting and complicated responsibilities and worries of our personal lives as well.
All of this make us understandably averse to spending precious energy and time listening to people complain about the challenges they are facing.
Complainers don’t necessarily have more problems than anyone else. Negativity is simply their default mode for managing stress, insecurity, conflict and fear.
I’m not talking about people who are normally positive and are having a bad day. I’m talking about people who are reliably and consistently negative.
They routinely avoid problem-solving, self-reflection, compromise and empathy in favor of blaming and finding fault with others.
Negative people can be particularly challenging in work settings, where we aren’t always able to choose our associates and avoidance may not be an option.
When you are talking to a negative person at work, you can almost hear the seconds ticking in the background, marking the steady loss of your productive time as you listen to the complicated drama of their newest grievance.
All your suggestions are rejected and your only options seem to be argument or escape. Escape usually wins but it often comes at the expense of the time and energy wasted on ruminating about the frustrating episode.
The classic “lose-lose” scenario with a side order of exasperation and anger.
So what can you do?
For starters, I think the problem should be redefined as: how can I better manage my responses to, and feelings about, people I perceive as complainers?
Because the solution to the challenge presented by negative people is less about them and more about us.
The solution starts with perceiving the complainer’s avoidance of responsibility as a sign of pain and fear, rather than as a deliberate choice. They act like they can’t do anything about the situation at hand because they feel overwhelmed. They act like they don’t have any viable options because that is exactly how it seems to them. They genuinely feel powerless and vulnerable.
Reevaluating the reasons for your coworker’s behavior makes room for a powerful and counter intuitive response: kindness.
Kindness may not change your coworker but it will change the way you feel and can help reduce your frustration and rumination.
Kindness does not in any way restrict your other options for dealing with the situation, it simply allows you to deliver your chosen response in a way that exerts less wear and tear on your nervous system.
A bonus benefit is that your response has a better chance of being understood if it is delivered with kindness rather than irritation.
Of course, it is difficult it is to be kind in the face of complaining and negativity.
However, it is precisely the magnitude of this challenge that makes it such an effective psychological fitness exercise.
Bring on 2015. Make it a year of discovering the practical art of kindness.