When you Google ‘negative friends’ it virtually immediately offers up the highest performing results of the 340,000,000 out there. Of the ones I examined, most offered survival advice – how to cope with or avoid the negative person, and if all else fails, how to dump them and find a new friend.
In my younger days I was a bit of a monkey-see-monkey-do learner. So, if I was with someone who was negative, I would copy the negativity. Once I got good at it, I started working on out-negativing them. That it was contrary to my natural born optimistic and cheerful nature seemed to show how far off course I was. I lacked the self-confidence to be my natural cheerful self. Negative people were cool: they had the political analysis; they were critical of anything the bosses might come up with; they had intimate knowledge of the patterns of conspiracy; I sat at their feet in avid admiration because they knew so much more than I did. Positive and optimistic people were naïve. I did not want to be that. It would not be cool.
One negative man I knew was a very good looking trade unionist in a highly volatile sector in a country in deep political crisis. He was so burdened by his deep appreciation of exactly how bad things were that he virtually walked with a limp. I invited him to be a guest speaker at a joint labour-management conference once, because I was in awe of how serious and critical he was – try as I might, I could NOT out-negative him. I had a wake-up call about him when one of the shop stewards in attendance at the conference asked me, privately, why I would ask such a negative man to come and speak at an event where the agreed intent was on finding areas of common interest in order to rebuild relationships. I said “well, because he’s so high up in the trade union movement and very knowledgeable.” The shop steward’s response was:
“We’ll never rebuild this country with people like that on the podium.”
That was a long time ago. Nelson Mandela was still in jail. I found that I struggled to find my feet: if we could not listen to these people with their hyper-critical and humorless analyses, who could we listen to? Who would guide us? I continued for a time to fall victim to negativity – indeed, I would say that I was bullied by such a person, to the extent that I quit my rather lovely job with the business class seats and the five star hotels. But it is what I learned afterwards that is of value:
Avoiding negative people isn’t always possible. Moreover, it changes nothing.
Engaging them ON THEIR NEGATIVITY, now THERE is a courageous act. The first time I tried it was with a very dear friend who had sunken into a negative funk about perpetual frustrating failures in obtaining financing for a project he so firmly believed in. I had recently undertaken the journey of learning to be a coach, and with that, the art of re-framing and the tactic of ‘holding up the mirror’.
Re-framing is where you see, and then point out, the silver lining around the storm cloud.
(“It’s raining AGAIN: I can’t stand it” – re-frame about the rain – “Yes, it’s wonderful how the rain is soaking into the forest floor – we’re bound to see lots of Mayflowers the next time we go for a walk.” OR “Yes, can you imagine how the Musquodoboit River is tumbling downstream – do you want to go kayaking down the rapids when the rain stops?”)
Holding up the mirror is where you give the other person honest and respectful feedback:
“When you keep emphasizing the negative it gives me the impression that you’re never satisfied with anything – that you’re stuck in a miserable life. Is that so?”
“I find it really hard to spend time with you when you’re so negative. Is there something we can do to make our time together more fun?”
That friend I mentioned: He’s lived a difficult life. He’s had more than his fair share of setbacks. Maybe he’s entitled to be negative? On the other hand, does his negativity not hold him back? What I do know is that, since I held up the mirror to him, it has become easy to break the negative spell. I just need to say “Hey! You’re doing that negative thing again”, or “this conversation isn’t enjoyable anymore” and he stops. He rethinks and he re-frames. I’m not claiming that his life has turned around as a result of my actions. What I’m telling you is that there’s no way our friendship will ever flounder on the rocks of negativity because we’ve named it and we have moved on. When it tries to creep back, one of us just has to say ‘it’s B-A-C-K’ and it STOPS. And we laugh, together.
I believe it is better to take the negativity head-on. It takes courage and curiosity.
Courage because the other person may initially escalate the negativity; curiosity because the potential for positive fallout is huge – wouldn’t you like to see where a relationship can go when you work at it, rather than walking away?
© Delphine du Toit 2016