How Do You Handle a Naysayer? Eight Tips for Managing Those Who Are Negative

Recently, I was writing at the local university, and I ran into a friend that works for the construction department on campus. He asked me for a few ideas for handling a “naysayer” at work. It seems that he was building some new rooms in the library, so they had to tear out the old rooms first. After framing the new rooms, they had the air conditioning people come and install all of the duct work in the ceiling. Then they hired an independent contractor to insulate the ceiling. The insulation guys brought in a table on wheels with all their equipment on it that they could roll around the room to do their work. When they were finished, they never retrieved their table nor their tools. My friend spoke with the superintendent responsible and asked if he could call the independent contractor to come and get their table and tools.

The superintendent responded, “No, I am not calling those guys to tell them that they need to get their #@+=! crap." My friend responded, “Did I say that you had to say that? I’m just asking if you could call them and say, ‘Hey, we are getting ready to texture and paint the walls, and we wondered if you could have your guys come and get their equipment.’”

Have you ever worked with or met someone whose regular answer to anything they are asked to do is usually “No!” Or perhaps every time you offer an idea, they say, “Yeah, but....”  These individuals often make comments such as: “That will never work!” “You don’t know what you are talking about!” or “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve heard this week.” These people have a negative response for everything. They shut down collaboration, stifle creativity and innovation, and drain everyone’s energy.   

Here are some ideas for helping the naysayer to work and play well with others.

Take them seriously, but not personally. When such people begin a negative rampage, you want to understand what the source of all their bluster is, but you don’t want to take their negativity personally. After all, their words, feelings, and actions reflect what is going on inside of them—it is all about them, not you. Remain calm in order to manage the conversation in an effective way rather than getting drawn into their negativity.

Understand the sources of their objections. Acknowledge their disagreement or any negative statements about the situation so they will know that you have heard them, and then ask them questions to understand their perspective. For example, you might say something like, “So, if I have heard you correctly, you think that ….Would you help me understand what supports that position?” Listen for them to share the data or evidence that would support their view. Continue to ask questions that surface their reasoning, logic, and supporting information behind their objections. If they can’t answer your questions with some form of a reasoned response, you know that there is probably a more personal issue at stake in this situation.   

Offer alternatives. After listening to them, ask them if there is another way to interpret the same set of facts that they are using as support for their argument. If they can’t think of a response, rehearse the evidence they offered and offer a different interpretation of those same facts. This will offer them a different point of view that they may not have considered. Follow up by asking them about your offered viewpoint.

Engage them with questions. You can get past their negativity by asking questions. Asking questions creates engagement and moves the conversation forward rather than creating a battle over differing views. If you take the time to understand the other person first, then when you ask for their consideration of your ideas, you are more likely to have their attention.

Retrain your brain. When you hear someone use, “Yeah, but...,” you must change any negative interpretation of that phrase to mean that the person has an additional thought or different idea. This will help you to derail your own potential defensive response to their negativity. Be curious and inquisitive about the information that resides behind their “Yeah, but...,” response.

Be respectful of different ideas. If there is something positive or important for consideration in their viewpoint, tell them so and express appreciation for their perspective. Sometimes we are quick to exclude ideas that are delivered with disrespect. Move past the mode of delivery and express appreciation for a thought that adds insight to the conversation.

Include them if they will be included. Naysayers push people away with their negativity in part because of the perception that they are difficult to deal with and hard to be around. The behavior of others reinforces the naysayers’ perspective that people don’t care for them or don’t want to hear what they have to say. In this way the behavior of the naysayer serves to create the exclusionary behavior of others. Surprisingly, people will sabotage themselves to reinforce the negative beliefs they have of others. Don’t get pulled into this drama. Look past their negativity and avoid being exclusionary because of their poor choice of behavior.   

Offer them a bigger picture. Sometimes offering the naysayer the bigger picture of a challenge or an issue will help to shift their perspective. When things don’t go as we planned, we often become so mired in what we want that we lose sight of the broader view of what is important for everyone or what should take priority.

Interacting with someone who is negative can be a challenge on many fronts. What is important is that we see past their negativity in order to understand them and their ideas. This is often difficult because of the manner of their delivery and because of their seemingly disrespectful treatment of others. I can’t guarantee that you will always be successful in winning over a naysayer to your way of thinking, but in trying some of these concepts you are keeping them from making a naysayer out of you.   

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What people are saying

Brad Harper | August 13, 2015 | REPLY
This is very helpful material.
Juan | March 9, 2020 | REPLY
Make the naysayers responsible for the solution. Stipulate hard deadlines for the deliverables
John Stoker | March 20, 2020 | REPLY
That would be one way to solve the problem, but another thing that is important is to recognize is that their naysaying really is about a positive value they have that is not being met. So if you listen from that perspective, then you will want to ask questions to identify the basis of their negativity. Make sense?? j