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How To Respond To Constant Negativity In Relationships or At Work

Updated on March 30, 2013

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.

- Viktor Frankl


One way of responding to what we see as negativity in others is to back off, to literally walk away. Sometimes we believe that’s the only way we can cope, the only response we feel strong enough to give. The fear is that we will be overwhelmed, or brought down by others. It’s a fear many people have, and I am certainly not immune to it.

But I don’t actually believe there is such a thing as a toxic or negative person. There are people who feel overwhelmed by the issues in their lives and who don’t handle them in ways that help themselves or others, but can any of us put our hands on our hearts and say we have never done this at any time in our lives? I know I can’t.

So, before I offer some suggestions for ways to respond to negativity in others that lead to our own growth and freedom, I’d like to share a story. If I remember correctly this story originates in India, but it is replaying itself everywhere in the world, every day.


The Old Man and The Two Strangers

In a village an old man leaned against the wall of his house, taking in the last rays of evening sun. He noticed a stranger come over the hill and along the road into the village. The stranger stopped a few people who all turned and pointed towards the old man.

The stranger came up and sat down beside him.

“They tell me you are the head of the village. I am thinking to move here,” the stranger said. “But first I need to know what the people here are like, because I don’t want to make a mistake.”

The old man smiled, and asked. “What are the people like where you live now?”

The stranger frowned. “Oh, it’s terrible. They are all thieves and liars and back-stabbers. That’s why I want to move. I can’t stand it there any more. I need to get out.”

The old man replied, “I think you will find that the people here are the same.”

The stranger stood up. “And to think that when I arrived here I thought these people looked nice and friendly. Thank goodness I checked.”

With that he rose and hurried from the village, never to return.

A few weeks later, another stranger came to the old man. “I am thinking to move to this village,” he said. “And first I’d like to know what the people here are like. They say you are the head of the village, so I have come to ask you.”

The old man smiled, and asked. “What are the people like where you live now?”

The stranger smiled back. “The people where I live now are wonderful. They are kind and helpful and care deeply about each other.”

The old man replied, “I think you will find that the people here are the same.”

The stranger moved to the village and was very happy.

Man's Search for Meaning
Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl’s book describes his experiences in Auschwitz, and the form of therapy he later developed.

The Freedom To Choose One’s Attitude

The most obvious message in this story is that what we think is what we see. The old man was simply telling the strangers that our attitude comes with us. Victor Frankl, who I quoted at the start of this article, also said, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Frankl was a prisoner in Auschwitz and his wife died in another concentration camp, so he knew what he was talking about.

Both the story and Frankl’s quote are an invitation for us to look inside and see where we might be contributing to the negativity we see in others. Only two days ago I felt irritated when my daughter reacted huffily to something I’d said. A few minutes later I noticed my husband do the same thing. It seemed that everybody was in a touchy mood. But I can’t really fool myself like that any more – the connecting factor was me. What if I was the one who felt touchy? What if the way I spoke did sound critical, even if it wasn’t meant that way?

It was painful to realize that was most likely the case, but it would ultimately be more painful to go on believing that my happiness is dependent on everyone else responding exactly how I’d like. When I thought about it more carefully I realized that before I’d spoken to my daughter I expected her not to like what I had to say, and so I expected a touchy response. Could I have been hearing something that wasn’t there, or contributing to her response in the way I spoke?

There’s another aspect to the story from India. The old man doesn’t invite the first stranger to come live in the village; nor does he try to fix the stranger, or get him to change his attitude.

What I’ve noticed is that every time I think someone shouldn’t be so negative, I think I have to do something about either their negativity or the situation they are describing. This feels hopeless, because it is.

Just seeing this can be a huge help in knowing how to cope or respond to negativity. Sometimes no response is needed.

Once someone came shouting at me about something she considered to be my fault. I was surprised and simply listened, saying nothing. After a few minutes this person became quieter and then stopped ranting altogether. Then she went away, and nothing more was ever said. I could see why she was angry, and I could also see that both of us had contributed to the situation, but had I tried to convince her of that, she would most likely have perceived me as arguing. Instead, in my silence she probably came to see it for herself.

Three Techniques To Deal With Negativity in Other People

There are three techniques I regularly use to cope when I feel overwhelmed by what appears to be negativity around me.

Byron Katie on relationships

See The Mirror

The first, which is what I did with my daughter, is to notice where it might be a reflection of what I am feeling or thinking. This does not mean I should then heap blame and guilt on myself. That just keeps the same dynamic within the relationship alive. In this case, I did initially blame myself (as well as her), which is probably what led to the same reaction from my husband.

To learn more about the process I use to notice these hidden “negative” thoughts within myself, read my hub:

Improve Your Quality of Life with The Work of Byron Katie

A question worth asking from Hale Dwoskin of The Sedona Method

The Sedona Method on Amazon

Letting Go: Transform Your Life - Transform the World
Letting Go: Transform Your Life - Transform the World
This DVD contains the most up-to-date Sedona Method techniques

Focus On Our Own Feelings

The second technique I used is to be aware of how I am feeling and to allow or even welcome my feelings, and then to be willing to let them go. This works for two reasons:

Firstly because by focusing on myself it eases that urge to leap in and “fix” the other person.

Secondly it leaves me freer to respond to what the person is actually saying, rather to react from my feelings about what I think he or she is saying.

We regularly mishear people for the simple reason that we are busy listening to our own thoughts and interpretations of what they are saying.

Let’s imagine I believe you are a negative person and I see you come towards me at work. I feel sure you are about to moan about your terrible job yet again, and before you reach me I’m thinking I need to get away. As you speak what I hear is something like this passage below. (My thoughts are in italics; your words that I manage to hear are in normal type.)

Oh my God here she you’ll never guess goes again. I cannot bear what she said to me this yet again Can’t she ever be happy about anything? don’t know how this happened.”

I’ve heard far more of my own thoughts than I have of what you told me. You could be moaning about your job again, but just as equally you could have told me you’ve been offered a promotion.

Honestly, how often do we listen 100% to what someone else is saying?

Next time you are with a “negative person” tune in to your own thoughts and feelings and notice just now positive (or not) those thoughts are! And again, as with the first technique above, do your best to be kind to yourself when you realize your thoughts are not as positive as you would like.

The process of noticing or welcoming feelings and thoughts is used in many different techniques around the world, from Eastern mindfulness practices to western techniques. One western process that I have found extremely helpful is The Sedona Method.

Marshall Rosenberg explains NVC

Don’t Judge Behavior. Do Recognize Unmet Needs

All of the processes I use encourage us to look at others and at life with a different mindset to that in most societies. The third process I use is Non-Violent Communication. The concept behind NVC is that all negative feelings stem from unmet needs, so instead of judging a person’s behavior we consider what they might need.

Marshall Rosenberg, who developed this process, grew up in area of Detroit torn with race wars, and came to see that the way we communicate with each other fosters violence. He wanted to develop a way of communicating that allows us to stay connected to the compassion within us all.

So if you come to me now with your story about how unfairly you’ve been treated at work and how it’s not fair that Jenny got the promotion you deserved, what I notice is that your need for recognition is not being met. I might say to you, “You feel annoyed when you see that Jenny got the promotion because you would like all your hard work to be noticed.”

Notice that I have not agreed with you that it is unfair that Jenny got the promotion. All I’ve done is recognize how you feel and why. I haven’t even said you “need recognition.” But I have let you know that I understand it’s important to you.

Sometimes responding to people in this way is enough for them to relax. Other times, in my experience at least, they will look at you in amazement and then continue to tell you more of their woes. (So this gives you another chance to choose a response that leads to growth and freedom!)

The main purpose of NVC is to maintain a meaningful connection. In the middle of writing this section a family member came to me looking pretty miserable. I noticed my feelings of overwhelm, and thoughts that the situation she told me of was so typical of her. Yes, at first I wished she wouldn’t be so negative. So I silently allowed myself to feel all that, and was aware of the aptness given what I was writing.

Then I said, “You seem disheartened.” I didn’t even acknowledge any unmet need. The empathy was enough for this person to relax, and the conversation lightened. NVC also encourages self-empathy and acknowledging our own needs. I use it in conjunction with the other processes because I find that otherwise it can keep me in the analytical part of my brain, and can feel unwieldy. However for many people it is their first tool of choice.

Choosing Freedom

With each situation we have choices – and the first choice is probably to ask ourselves – do I feel able to deal with this situation? None of these techniques condone violence or abuse, and in any situation where we feel overwhelmed or abused then stepping back is a good idea.

During that stepping back it will serve us well to look at what we brought to the situation, otherwise like the first stranger in the story we will go on carrying our own hidden negativity with us wherever we go.


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