How to Deal with Negative People

Are negative people in your workplace driving you crazy? Don’t let them sabotage your efforts or dampen the spirit of other employees.  Here’s how to deal with negativity in a positive and constructive way.

You know that frustrating feeling when someone on your team always seems to point out why ideas won’t work. Their “wet blanket” buzz kill way of stating their opinion sucks the life out of meetings and dampens everyone’s enthusiasm.

Being a smart leader, you know you need to stop this, but…you also know you don’t want to communicate to the person that their opinion doesn’t matter or that dissent is unwelcome.

This article shows you how to deal with this situation and get these messages across:

  1. “Your behavior is negatively affecting me, the team, the business…and your value as an employee.”
  2. “I DO want you to speak up when you have a different point of view.”
  3. “I DO value perspectives that can see the potential downside of ideas. That is a skill of yours I don’t want to lose.”
  4. “I need you to learn how to say your point of view in a more inviting way, though.”
  5. “I also need you to be more open-minded to other’s point of view. There’s a difference between seeing potential landmines and being convinced that our perspective is the only valid one. The first attitude is really useful; the second is not.”

So how do you accomplish this? Here are nine principles to guide your conversation.

  1. “Name the Game”—While the term “Game” sometimes refers to some type of manipulation or hidden agenda that you need to address, in this case, it simply means the reoccurring behavior pattern you want to discuss. When you do, you want to:
    • Describe the behavior you’re talking about in concrete terms, so the person knows explicitly what you’re referencing. Use a specific recent example as a launching point.
    • State that the recent instance is part of an ongoing pattern.
  2. Assume Positive Intent—Often people who we experience as “negative” are actually trying to be helpful. They want to prevent others from making what they see as a serious mistake. They just express their concern and perspective in unpleasant, off-putting ways. If we simply criticize their approach and don’t acknowledge their positive intent, they are likely to feel like their concerns and opinions are unwelcome. If they get this message, they will care a little—or a lot—less about contributing in the future. They will have less “emotional skin in the game.” Thus, it’s important to acknowledge the value their perspective and involvement can bring….if they communicate it effectively.
  3. Explain What You are NOT Saying or Intending—This is an excellent bit of advice from the authors of Crucial Confrontations because it helps you prevent possible misunderstandings and, by doing so, prevent the other person from becoming defensive.
  4. Ask Them about Their Positive Intent—In addition to acknowledging the benefit of someone who can see potential flaws in an idea, ask them to  share their actual intent. When you do this, be aware that people often aren’t aware of their true intent and will come up with explanations that make sense to them, but aren’t necessarily true. For information on this phenomenon, called the “Interpreter Function”, check out Michael Gazzaniga’s fascinating research.  Even if the person’s explanation of why they do what they do isn’t reality-based, simply talking about it helps “put it out on the table” and allows you to discuss more productive ways of achieving their stated intent.
  5. Connect Cause and Effect—Often people who say things that annoy or repel others have no clue about the effect they’re having on others and…the price they pay for the effect they have. As part of this conversation, you want to clearly, but with compassion, describe what you see as the effect of their behavior, both in terms that concern you—e.g. team performance—and terms that likely would concern them—e.g. how willing others are to listen to them and take them seriously.
  6. Ask If They Understand—Often when working with managers, when I coach them on how to proceed after they bring up the issue, many want to jump right into asking the other person “OK…so what should we do about this?” If the other person doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, it’s pretty hard to have a productive conversation about possible solutions and an action plan.
  7. Ask for Their Perspective—They might understand what you’re saying, but see it very differently. If they disagree with your perception or assessment, how invested will they be in problem-solving? Think of times someone defined a situation in a way that you disagreed with and didn’t ask for—or listen to—your perspective. They just plowed forward with a game plan. Think of how angry, resentful, and misunderstood, you felt. Thus, make sure you ask for their perspective.
  8. Involve Them in Generating Alternative Approaches—As you know, the more someone is involved in generating solutions and an action plan, the more investment they will feel.
  9. Thank Them For Talking About This Issue—Let them know you appreciate their willingness to talk about this. If they were strikingly non-defensive and open, acknowledge how much you appreciate that. Many, if not most, people, find talking about interpersonal issues uncomfortable. So when someone is willing to do that, it’s nice to acknowledge their willingness to do so.

David Lee is the founder of and an internationally recognized authority on employee engagement. He is the author of nearly 100 articles and book chapters that have been published in the US, Europe, India, Australia, and China. For the whitepaper based on this article that includes wording to use for each point, email

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