We all have negative people in our lives who manage to bring us down on a perfectly good day. While you can't avoid these people entirely, you can deal with them in a way that has you both walking away from the conversation better off. That means figuring out when it's worth listening to them.
To help figure out the best way to deal with negative people, I spoke with Roger Gil, a mental health clinician who specialises in marriage and family therapy. As Gil notes, dealing with negative people is primarily about learning to differentiate between the opinions you should consider and the ones you should ignore -- to distinguish between the pessimist who's just being a sour puss, and the pragmatist who's actually offering valuable insights.
After all, if those negative nancy's aren't adding to the conversation, you're probably best off ignoring them:
There is no foolproof way of distinguishing needless pessimism from productive pragmatism when seeking advice or opinions. But by assessing what goes into the formulation of the third-party opinions that can influence your own decisions, you can separate the skewed opinions from the more well-thought-out ones.
Gil's point is that you'll always run into negative people, so the best thing you can really do is figure out if their advice is worth following or not. Whether it's a friend, or a new co-worker at the office who seems to always wear the grumpy hat, here's how to root out the underlying truth in what they're really saying.
Find the Critic's Baseline
Gil recommends you first find the baseline of a person before you assume they're being negative. We all have our bad days, and unless you have an idea of where a person stands, you can't know whether they're just in a bad mood or if they're always like that. Gil suggests that before you assume they're negative, you spend a little time figuring out exactly how they work.
If you hang around someone long enough you will get a feel for whether they're the type to be more optimistic, pessimistic, or pragmatic. This knowledge is valuable because while you might expect a "yes" from the optimist, a "no" from the pessimist, or a "let's look at the big picture" from the pragmatist, it's the times that the responses don't follow the "party line" that should interest you. By knowing what is your critic's norm, you will be able to differentiate between the times that "they are just being themselves" versus the times that they may be recognising something truly noteworthy.
Essentially, when your negative critic ventures off the beaten path and offers advice to you that's surprising, that's when you should really take note. Even if they're typically the pessimist in a situation, when they break that norm, something interesting is going on there that's worth noting. Picture: deovolenti/Flickr
Follow the "Three's Company" Rule
Just because someone is a pessimist doesn't mean they're not right now and again. Gil notes that the easiest way to figure if their advice is worth following is to simply ask around and figure out if a consensus exists that falls in line with the person's view:
If one or two people give you similar opinions, it could just be that they are drinking the same Kool Aid. If three or more people that have nothing to do with one another have similar opinions, then you are increasing the odds that the opinions you are getting are more accurate assessments of the way things are because each of those people is coming from their own unique perspective.
If it's a unanimous opinion, then perhaps their isn't as pessimistic as you think, and their advice -- whatever it may be -- is worth considering. While you certainly don't need to treat the three's company rule like a law, it's worth considering if you're unsure if their opinion is based on their grumpy mood.
Ask the Right Questions
Eventually, your grump-spotting is going to need a little more investigation, and that means asking questions. To get to the root of why a person's opinion is the way it is, Gil suggests one question you might want to ask is the simplest:
"Why?" is the most powerful question you can ask a person who is giving you their opinion because it allows you to determine what assumptions inform their opinions. If the response you get is one that indicates a lack of insight ("I don't know, that's just how it is", "Because everyone knows that's how the world always works,"), then you can pretty much assume that the person's emotional baggage is informing their opinion. However if the response is one that suggests that some good, old-fashioned contemplation was involved ("The data suggests that this outcome is likely") then you may want to lend a little more credence to the response you get.
To further root out the origin of someone's advice and whether it's worth pursuing, you also want to ask another simple question, "would you do it again?" when it applies. The reason is pretty simple: it requires a bit of an emotional response, and that can help you differentiate at person's opinion even further.
When seeking the advice of someone who has walked down a path that you are considering pursuing, asking them if they would do it again and what they would do differently will reveal valuable insights into whether or not they are being objective in their assessments. If their response to "would you do it again?" feels like it's more of a reflection of their own emotional baggage than of someone who has their eyes on the situation at large then you know to give less weight to their opinions on a topic. If the person can tell you what they would do differently or can expound on why they would keep it all the same then the opinion you are getting is that of a proactive thinker instead of a passive person who is just coasting along.
The hope is that your questions will lead to a better understanding of their history, and subsequently, you'll know whether their advice is worth following in the future. When it boils down to it, the best way to root out and deal with a negative person is to figure out how much of their opinion really matters to you, if you should take it, and how much you should care about their advice moving forward.
If it's a coworker, boss, friend or family member, they will likely be in your life no matter what -- learning how to decide whether or not to pay attention to them helps inform your decision-making moving forward. If their pessimism ends up being too much of a bummer, you can always call them out on their BS and try to remedy the situation a little. Picture: Anders Sandberg/Flickr