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At one point or another in our career life, we all run into a person who sucks the life out of being at work. Such individuals typically love to complain about their job, spread office gossip, highlight everything there is wrong in the World and add dramatic flare to whatever they are talking about. Underlying such behaviors are negative, pessimistic and dramatic personalities; Personalities that can make going into work dreadful.
Figuring out how to deal with negative people in the workplace can be challenging as there are many factors that need to be considered. Factors like, who is this person? Are they your superior? Do you have to work closely with them? Do they have a lot of clout within the company? Answers to such questions will not only impact what you say to them but how you deliver it - directly or indirectly.
The direct approach of dealing with a negative person generally entails being upfront with him/her about what you’re willing and not willing to tolerate. The indirect approach, on the other hand, centers more on being subtle and relying on the other person to pick up on your cues. Determining what approach is best to use can be done in a couple of steps.
First - evaluate the situation. As previously mentioned, ask yourself, “Who is this negative person and what is his/her role and level of influence within the company?” In other words, the approach you take needs to be tailored to the person you are dealing with. For example, let’s say the most toxic person in your office is your manager, who has been with the company for several years and spends his/her free time with the CEO. Taking the direct approach in telling them how you feel about his/her negativity may not be best. Especially, if you are a person who worries about what other’s think and/or are a newbie at the company. An indirect approach in this situation can be a great way to test the waters by allowing you to gauge his/her reaction.
Second - know thyself. Understanding your personality type, your insecurities and capabilities is just as important as evaluating the situation. For instance, are you the type of person who gets easily frustrated when trying to get your point across? Do you fear that others may not like you? Do you have difficulty being articulate? The answers to such questions can help you decide what approach to take. In other words, if you are a worry-wort/people-pleaser, being direct may rid you of the stress associated with dealing with the negative person but feelings of anxiety may take its place.
Once you have evaluated the situation and reflected on your strengths and weaknesses, then it is time to take action. While there are various steps you can take and things you can say, below are a few techniques that have worked for many of my clients dealing with negative people at work.
1). Set limits and boundaries with how you engage - negative people often have no problem spending valuable work time gossiping and/or complaining about others. While it may be intriguing to listen to, it is important to understand that by doing so, you are inadvertently letting them know you are okay with it.
In order to prevent this from becoming a routine it is imperative to nip it in the bud. Otherwise, it will set the stage for them to continue coming back to you. If utilizing the direct approach, you may want to say something like, "I'm sorry to hear you are having a rough day but I ___________ (fill in the blank) - prefer to stay out of office gossip, prefer to not get involved, don't have time for other people's problems, etc. The indirect approach would sound like, "Sorry to interrupt, but I really need to finish this task I'm working on." The point with either approach is to make it clear to the other person that work is your priority and will take precedent over gossip and drama.
Body language can also be used to subtly send a message. For example, if every time this negative person comes to your desk you completely turn around to face him/her, you are sending a message of interest to them. Instead, as they are talking, keep your body facing your computer/desk, organize some paperwork, sort through work emails, etc. The intention is not to be rude but instead to show you will not drop what you are doing simply because they came over and started chatting with you. This can result in shorter conversations if they see you are not giving them your undivided attention.
2) Minimize your Interactions - if possible, try to avoid going to lunch and/or on breaks with this person. Spending your free time with him/her can be seen by them as a perfect opportunity to have you as a captive audience. Should they inquire about taking lunch with you or going for a smoke, you can try indirectly saying something like, " While I normally would go, I have a few things I need to take care of so I'll be doing lunch on my own."
The key to this type of technique is that you must be assertive. Words like “think, should, maybe” are not to be used when you are relaying your message. Such words express doubt and uncertainty, thus increasing the likelihood that they will try to convince you otherwise. Being consistent with your message is also key as it will get them to see you as an unreliable source and can decrease the number of times they will interact with you.
Minimizing your interactions indirectly can also entail physically distancing yourself from him/her when possible. Try to avoid going to common gathering areas like the lunchroom, water cooler, bathroom, etc., when he/she is likely to be there. These are prime areas for getting sucked into conversations. If you work in a small office and he/she is a loud talker, try distancing yourself from their voice by wearing earbuds/headphones and listening to music. Doing so sometimes can give us the break we need from hearing what they have to say.
In some cases, unfortunately, the indirect approach will not work. This can be especially true for negative nellies who are persistent and/or lack respect for personal space. Being direct, therefore, is necessary. Statements like "Thanks for the invitation but I prefer to be alone on my breaks," or “I don’t like spending my down time thinking/hearing about other people’s drama” can definitely get the point across.
3) Keep Conversations Light and Friendly - one sure way to welcome a negative response is to ask open-ended questions. Questions like, "How was your weekend?," may normally get a response like, "Good. And you?" But, when dealing with a negative person, it can often turn into a play by play of how horrendous their weekend was. Instead, keep the interaction simple and short. A simple "Good morning" or "Good evening", should be sufficient enough to maintain a polite and cordial relationship.
4) File a Complaint - in the event that none of the above works, your only recourse may be to file a complaint according to the protocols of your workplace. This can especially hold true for those negative individuals who are toxic, controlling and combative. Doing so can help prevent this person from creating any more toxicity while also making the workplace less dreadful.
Overall, there are many things that can be done to deal with negative people at work. As mentioned, they can range the gamut of ignoring the person to complaining to your boss. Factors, like work culture, size of the workforce, office layout, your personality type, etc. all play a role in how you should approach this negative situation. Ultimately, however, it should be addressed so that you do not find yourself suffering because of someone else.
Would you like to share techniques that have worked for you? Please do so below.
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