Over the past year I have been involved with a number of change initiatives that companies are implementing to improve their business practices and competitive advantage. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how managers could successfully impact change within their organizations. Any change effort is often met with resistance because the change may take people out of their comfort zone, may require them to learn new tasks and develop new skills, or may increase insecurity about their future. Whatever the situation, change usually brings about increased negativity by those who are affected. Because I teach people how to talk about potentially difficult situations, I am frequently asked what is the best way to deal with those who are highly negative.
Negativity in our speech and attitudes seems to be running rampant in our culture at the present time. There is more mention in the media about injustice, instability, or inequality than there is of opportunity, integrity, and virtue. Negativity is contagious; naysayers and complainers plant seeds of negativity wherever they go which adversely affects those around them. The complaining, whining, and blaming does not lead to the creation of anything positive. When I was a grumbling teenager, my father once said, “Complainers don’t contribute, cynics don’t create, and doubters don’t do.” Unfortunately the people who speak negatively reveal their thinking and the desires of their hearts.
One of the challenges you may face is knowing how to stop the tide of negativity. Here are some suggestions for creating a more positive atmosphere.
Listen to what people are saying. When people are complaining they are telling you about what is important to them. When individuals start criticizing and condemning others or their organization, they are revealing themselves. For example, if someone were to say, “Those two people are so lazy!” What they are telling you is that they tend to be lazy and are trying to divert attention away from themselves or they are upset by those that don’t perform to the same level that they do. We tend to see the world through the lens of our judgments or inadequacies that we project onto others. You can learn a lot about a person by the accusations that they make of others.
Listen for values. Every negative statement that a person makes is really a statement of a positive value. Unfortunately the value is hidden behind invective and emotional language. For example, someone may complain, “You never listen to me!” What is often missed in this statement is what the person is really saying: “I have something important to say, and I wish that I had your attention.” Because we have not attuned our ear to listen for positive values, we are put off by the negativity and miss the person’s plea for acknowledgement and understanding.
Confirm the value. Once you have heard the value hidden behind the negativity, you can connect with the person by acknowledging their value. Figuratively this is like removing yourself from a position of opposition or conflict and aligning yourself with the person on the same side of an issue. For example, suppose someone said, “I don’t have time for all this extra work these changes are creating.” To confirm the value, you would say, “I understand how important it is to you to do a great job, and how it is important to you to have ample time to do your job. Is that right?” Notice that you are confirming what they value and that you are asking them to confirm your thinking. Don’t worry if you have guessed incorrectly in acknowledging what is important to them because they will correct you if you miss the mark. What is important is that you make the effort to understand them. This signals that you are listening to them, trying to understand their perspective, and value what they have to offer.
Explain the complexity. Explaining the complexity is about explaining the details and rationale that they may not understand. For example if I confirmed the value above, I would explain the complexity by stating, “All these changes and tasks are to measure our productivity and are designed to help us become more productive and efficient. Gathering these metrics will help us to know what we have to do to better serve our customers and remain competitive.” Of course further specificity or concrete examples may be needed to make the point. People are often resistant to change because they don’t fully understand why the change is necessary. This lack of understanding is what creates resistance.
Accentuate and celebrate the positive. In order to make mention of positive events or results, you have to be more aware of what is happening. People within organizations are usually not very good about identifying the positive and then deliberately sharing the positive results that have been achieved. Accentuating the positive acts as the antidote to others’ negativity.
When good things happen or success is achieved, let others know about it. Share positive stories that will inspire confidence and hope for a brighter future. Make a deliberate effort to celebrate the successes achieved.
Recognize personal effort. If when listening to others you notice that the person is making negative comments about themselves or their future, then you need to recognize the positive efforts of their achievement. We don’t recognize others for their contribution often enough. When things start changing, individuals will naturally assume the worst about themselves. Any time you can make a sincere attempt to dispel the doubts they express about themselves is well spent.
Encourage persistent effort. Sometimes negativity arises from individuals who are struggling with new tasks or processes. If you notice a co-worker who is trying, but may not be succeeding, offer a kind word of encouragement and tell them that you know that they can be successful if they will persist in their efforts. You don’t have to be the manager to have a positive impact on those around you.
Increase their awareness. Sometimes people don’t realize how negative they are or how their language and behavior are adversely affecting others. With great respect, you may need to approach the person and kindly tell him or her what is so obvious to others, but may not be obvious to them. If you do this as a sincere attempt to help them improve their interactions with others, they will listen and hopefully take any suggestions that you may offer.
There is far too much negativity in our speech and interactions with others. Sometimes our negativity or that of others is borne out due to frustration with any number of issues. If you want things to improve, you can learn to manage others’ negativity more effectively by implementing some of these suggestions. Asking yourself, “If not now, when? And if not me, who?” may help you to decide the positive results are worth the effort.