Negativity is natural. In all our lives there are the “mood-hoovers”, the “heart-sinkers” and the “dark clouds”. Those people who seem to be full of woe and keen to “rain on your parade.
Dealing with Dementors
JK Rowling describes an extreme version of this in her stories of the wizarding world.
Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you JK Rowling
In the Harry Potter stories, the Dementors are used to guard the prison. They don’t just punish the inmates by surrounding them with negativity. They also suck out all the hope and joy so that the prisoners don’t feel that escape is even worth trying. The Defense of the Dark Arts teacher trains the children to drive the dementors away creating a Patronus, a strong positive feeling.
Dealing with Negativity in the Real World
Some coaches and gurus say to banish negative people from your life. Either cut them off or blast them with positivity.
The bad news is this is rarely feasible and never kind. First of all, it’s not easy to just cut people off –there are mobile phones, social media etc. Secondly, where does one get the strength and energy to be continually positive when surrounded by negativity? Finally, it might be your job to help the mood-hoover–it might be a client or a boss or a family member?
The good news is that there are tools that help you manage negativity, both protecting you AND potentially positively impacting the mood-hoover (or dementor). Not only are they based on scientific research, but in my work with lots of angry people in conflict, I’ve seen them work magic.
First, we need to understand that negativity is a natural response that keeps us safe. Negative feelings are useful and normal. Constant positivity (as well as being really really annoying) is not healthy. So, let’s look at why negativity is natural.
Why is Negativity a Natural Response
Evolution takes a long time and humans still have a negativity bias. This is because it is usually safest in a physically dangerous situation to assume that the change is a threat.
For example, in a jungle, you see something that you think is a snake in the path. Before you even realise that you have thought about it you either run away, club the object on the path or freeze hoping the snake won’t notice you.
When something changes, in a split second, our brain reacts to the potential danger, causing a physical and chemical reaction in our bodies, and then we act. This is the flight fight freeze response. Let’s look at what that does to us.
When a threat or a change is perceived, the heart rate changes and sends a signal diverting blood from “non-essential activities” to those needed for running away or fighting. This happens whether the perceived threat is physical or mental. Evolution favoured those who didn’t stop to think but just ran away or fought…
So in challenging situations, unless we learn how to control the flight or fight response, our thinking brain shuts down. We are left with is fear, anger, anxiety, hate and instinct.
Cortisone, adrenaline and steroids are pumped into us, making us more frightened and/or angry.
You cannot feel confident because your body is being pumped full of hormones that make you anxious, angry and alert to all sorts of dangers. Your focus narrows to the particular issue, you can’t see the bigger picture.
Your brain then tries to make sense of the situation and says there must be a reason for feeling this way, so interprets everything negatively.
This is a normal human response that keeps us safe. Everyone has this hardwired in.
Why Negative Emotions are more Powerful
Negative emotions are much more immediate than positive ones. We need about 3-5 positive interactions to counteract a negative one. Negative emotions are instinctive, stronger, last longer, have a greater physical impact and are remembered most clearly. Positive emotions are more subtle, fleeting, based on our interpretation and less memorable.
“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Rick Hanson
So negative emotions will outweigh positive ones and cloud peoples minds and their thinking brains are switched off. We need to understand this to be able to deal with complaints, resistance and negativity.
So before we look at how we can prevent or manage negativity in the long run, I want to give you some first aid tools for immediate use. I’ll deal with long term strategies in another post.
Conflict First Aid: Managing the Flash Points
Before looking at how to prevent a build up of toxic or negative energy, let’s deal with the flash points.
Pause: a tool to calm yourself before the storm
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power
to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Victor E. Frankl
Think of a recent situation where the situation didn’t go as well as you would have liked. Choose a 5 on the scale of 1 it didn’t bother you and 10 was hugely traumatic. Imagine that the person is coming to see you or phoning in an hour.
Pause and reflect, if only for an instant.
Ask my instinctive response keeping me safe from physical danger? (If so, let the primitive brain take over. If not, continue)
Take some deep slow breaths. This will calm and strengthen your heartbeat and clear your mind.
Notice how you feel
Choose how you want to react. Do you need to ask for more time?
ACT: a tool to work out what to do before the storm hits
A Acknowledge your feelings. Accept that it might be hard. Assess the chances realistically. Act as if you will be successful
C Calm yourself. Consider what you could do. Compose your plan. Choose your time.
T Think of what is important and the ideal outcome. Trust yourself. Take your time. Try and try again.
The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them. Tom Crum
Sometimes we don’t have time to prepare ourselves. The situation just arises–we walk into a room and the negativity starts. What can we do?
Here’s a healthy way to react to negative attitudes. Instead of fight flight freeze, follow the Salad steps. Salad isn’t nice if you leave it ages before you eat it, and just like that the sooner you follow these steps the better.
Now I want you to imagine a typical situation when you are facing a negative colleague’ complaining customer or criticising boss. Work through the steps below.
This is very hard to do if we believe that the person complaining is out to get us, or angling for a freebie or that they are just a nasty person. So first, take a couple of deep breaths, and tell yourself
- What I really want a good interaction and
- This person is giving me a look at how things have gone wrong and giving me the chance to put it right.
- this is a good chance to practice my negativity handling skills.
- What is the best possible outcome and what can I do to make sure it happens.
Acknowledge their pain/anger/sadness. Accept that this is their view and that they have a right to express it.
Apologise that the person has been hurt (and has had to complain and thank them for telling you.(you need to mean this, or it will sound insincere and potentially make things worse).
Don’t blame and don’t spoil your apology with an excuse. You aren’t saying they are right and you are wrong, you are sorry the situation has occurred and you are thankful that they have told you about it and they have a right to feel the way they do. An apology is a bandage, and like a bandage, it needs to be bigger than the wound. Whatever you say don’t say “I’m sorry IF you found it upsetting”. The person then thinks “oh, so you are only sorry because I complained and you don’t think I should be upset…”
Listening to negativity is incredibly hard. However, it is the key and centre of an effective approach. Listening is like a magic wand. Ask them to tell you more and listen to what the problem is.
Really explore and understand what is going on for them. Recognise the impact on them. Accept that their view may be different. Don’t trivialise it, don’t make excuses, or try and give reasons or interrupt with a solution, just listen.
What people want when they complain is to be heard and understanding about why they are upset.
The most important thing is that we need to be understood. We need someone to be able to listen to us and to understand us. Then we will suffer less.” Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s very tempting to rush in with our solutions. We want to make things better so try and solve the problem before asking what their solution is. For example, giving the customer a gift, or vouchers or offering to take someone’s place.
If it is done without understanding the problem or the desired end result, not only will the person feel that you are trying to buy them off, you will get more complaints about the same thing because it hasn’t been fixed or it encourage more negativity because it is rewarded.
Perhaps the person wants an explanation, perhaps they just want to make sure no one else goes through what they have done, perhaps they want an apology. If you’ve listened well, you will know.
Do what you can.
Thank them again for bringing things to your attention and tell them what you will do to correct any mistakes you might have made.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do to put it right. Be honest and tell people that.
If you don’t have the authority or resources to put it right, do what you can to ease the situation. Simply acknowledging their pain and listening makes a big difference.
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will always remember how you made them feel. Maya Angelou
If you need some help with negativity, give me a call. I offer conflict coaching; either to give you tools to protect yourself from negativity or to help the mood-hoovers get a fresh perspective and improve their lives. I also offer training workshops and mediations. Call or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a free confidential discussion.