How To Deal With Negative People

How To Deal With Negative People

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.

Picture: PSD Graphics, PSD Graphics, eurobanks/Shutterstock

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

Thanks to mental health clinician Roger Gil for helping with this post. You can find him on Twitter here and be sure to check out his podcast as well.


  • How funny to see this near an article on managing up.

    I had one of those creepy bosses whose natural state toward competent mid-career and senior women was that of a contrarian. I even tried to get her to agree one day on the weather and she noted that she’d really been hoping for one more day of rain to help out her garden, so she told me impatiently and with a tone of annoyance that I had a very limited perspective on what made for good weather. I made a game out of trying to get her to agree with things I said, and only managed it once or twice, out of hundreds of tries — and those couple of times were when I said something negative about another competent woman on the team! (I kid you not.) It was creepy that the best conversation I had with this woman in 18 months involved bagging on a coworker — not something I was at all prepared or willing to do on a frequent basis, because (1) it’s not my style to bag on people unless they do something egregiously wrong, and (2) people rarely did egregiously wrong things on our team. Nothing I’d ever done was good enough, not even the 98% of things I did on my 60 hour work weeks (because she over-assigned me work — I had stats showing I had 40% more on my plate than others) that she didn’t have the technical skill to pull off herself. The less-competent young boys on the team, however, got kudos for writing simple scripts during their 40 hour work weeks.

    How’d she turn this way? She didn’t. From the first time I spoke with her, she was that way. It was just her natural reaction to any competent woman not above her in the food chain. Why’d I take such a cr*ppy job? I didn’t. I turned down my first offer at Microsoft because it involved working for someone who reported to her, and I didn’t want such an unhelpful and mood-dragging person in my chain of command. I eventually joined a team in the same division but with a completely different chain of command. Alas, a reorg took care of that 4 years later, and she ended up managing the senior staff on a team, one of whom was me. Things were no better 4 years later than they had been on that initial meeting. I won’t go into the disaster that ensued. But suffice it to say that 2 business coaches I had worked with for years and other friends in high places at the company couldn’t even figure a way to fix the situation, even though I worked with them on it from before day 1 (ie, from the day the reorg was announced, which was about 10 days before she took over) and was willing to try ANYTHING.

    It’s tough to deal with a negative person when the baseline is “if there’s a negative way to spin a situation in which I am involved, she’ll do it”, and they’re riding herd over your career as your manager. Regarding the suggestion of asking “Why?”, tried that, and she even interpreted that as among the ultimate threats, tending to generate a response of, “Don’t HAVE to tell you. Don’t WANT to tell you. It’s because I say so.”

    Some negative people are just losers incapable of dealing constructively with some or all of their fellow human beings, and the best thing to do is to distance yourself from them so that you eliminate your exposure to their toxic input.

      • OH! Sorry mate!

        TL;DR: Article’s advice doesn’t work for those who are determined to be negative. Some negative people are just losers incapable of dealing constructively with some or all of their fellow human beings, and the best thing to do is to distance yourself from them so that you eliminate your exposure to their toxic input.

    • Ouch! I don’t know if it was personal or, as you said, about inadequacies or whatever about women below her but that does not sound fun. I never understand how there can be work relationships where one person is just so toxic and unwilling to communicate their problems with others. In this case it almost sounds like depression, you can’t help but be negative all the time when depressed. Did she often get angry for no reason or seem excessively tired every morning?

      • Official TL;DR: She knew that her behavior was improper, and had at least some degree of conscious control over it, because she never displayed it in front of people up-line from her in the hierarchy.

        It was about (near as I can tell) deep insecurities about peer-level women (whether reporting to her or not) being better at just about everything except nagging than she is. 😉

        She was able to control her outbursts when people up-line from her were around, so she had some conscious control over the behavior. She just generally chose not to exercise it if none of those people were around.

        With coaches, I tried all sorts of things to try to appear and be less threatening, but apparently my mere existence and my resume and reputation for results at the company branded me with some sort of scarlet letter I couldn’t remove. Pretending I was one of the meek, constantly apologetic, teary women of the team (we had two, they were never targeted) didn’t work, because she knew that wasn’t who I was and that I was play-acting even when I kept it up for a month straight. Minding my own business and not sticking my head up didn’t work (she’d come to me and ask me for status on 45 projects, 13 of which were new support issues that had come in whilst I was working on the issue that was currently on my desk and which I therefore hadn’t seen yet, and berate me for not having interrupted myself every time one of those 13 issues came in to look at it before going back to my work, which would have resulted in no work getting done, giving her yet another reason to complain, so it was a no-win). Actively trying to help her and defending her when others whacked her on the head didn’t work (in her mind, this only made me an evil, conniving brown-noser). The list of what I tried goes on.

        It hurt like hell, and I only put up with it and tried hard to fix the situation because I had a quarter million dollars of unvested incentive compensation to lose if I left the company (she would not allow me off her team… apparently I was a one-size-fits-all punching bag for her just two doors down, and therefore more convenient than any other female peers who were floors or buildings away). Unfortunately the only large scale layoff in the company’s history happened during this. You can guess what I never saw a dime of. I put up with it for nothing, to the detriment of my health (I’m in my 40’s. I may be terminally ill. Waiting on tests to find out for sure. That’s not a joke, that is an assessment based on some preliminary tests, unfortunately.)

    • That person seems to be very deconstructive in relationships, trying to get power from strong people. She’s not “toxic” – it’s just her way of taking power. What I really would suggest is trying to constrcut relations with her, not giving her the power she’s trying to take. You should be fine by that, but it’s very hard way making such dialogue, especially, with deconstructive people. Either – sell that power. Give her what she wants – accept her superiority and give her all the responsibilities connected with that superiority. For that you could ask better relationship leading to better work etc. so in facts it’s YOU who would be controlling her, since it’s your right to accept her power or not.
      I think, she should become ecstatic because of that maneuver, really. You may even become good friends, not kidding.

      • Didn’t actually work like that. I tried to play into it, asked her for priorities, etc. and she wasn’t interested. No, I should just know how to mind-read what she wants. Etc. The game was purely one of finding a competent person to use as a punching bag because she got off on it. I wasn’t the first victim.

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