How to Deal With Negativity

One person patiently listens to another who's upsetLittle Kidbit comes home from school and declares, “School sucks.”

Carl Coworker looks over the agenda for the upcoming meeting and sighs, “This is going to be a total waste of time.”

Spouse comes home from the grocery store and growls, “That grocery store has the worst parking in town.”

How do you respond?

It’s tempting to debate the facts of the case. You might even see it as an opportunity to do some “positivity training.”

“Yesterday you said you loved school.”

“The meeting might not be a waste of time; you never know. “

“The parking’s not that bad; you just went at the wrong time.”

The person will thank you later, right?


But I’m not sure either of you will be better off in the long run.

What NOT to Do

My partner, Mike, came into the room just now. He was clearly discouraged. He’s been working on his physics homework today, and apparently it’s not going well.

“I just can’t do this last problem, honey,” he says, exhausted and unhappy.

My immediate impulse is to correct him; he can do it.

“That problem is kicking your butt right now,” is what I say, mentally underlining “right now” to contrast it with the future success he’ll undoubtedly have.

Mike leaves the room without another word. Maybe he figures nothing good’s going to happen in here; more likely something just occurred to him that might unlock the solution to the problem.

My point is this: Don’t do what I just did.

Don’t offer a positive spin on what looks to the other person like a bleak picture.

What “negative” people need is not a corrective interpretation of the situation. They need an acknowledgement of their troubled emotions.

What I should have said to Mike is something like, “You sound discouraged.”

Just that. No correction needed. No fixing required.

People don’t say negative things because they want to be negative.

People say negative things because they’re trying to express feelings.

You can help them — and yourself, when it’s you who’s being the Negative Nelly or Norman — by using the compassionate practice of validation.

For a Positive Outcome, Validate the Negative

When someone says, “This is going to suck,” please don’t say, “Or it might not!”

That response not only tramples on the person’s feelings, it shames them for indulging in negativity. (In these United States of Happy, that’s definitely a sin if not an actual crime.)

Instead, just reflect: “It sounds like you’re anticipating a bad time.”

No one gets hurt just by acknowledging a so-called negative feeling.  We’re all human beings having a mixed-bag of a time on this old Earth. Let’s give each other some room to be cranky, how ’bout?

When the kidbit makes a negative statement about school, a friend, or anything else, it’s an opportunity for parents to demonstrate that feelings matter.  “You seem unhappy. Did something happen in school/with Shelby/at the mall today?”

It’s easy to interpret a negative statement as an invitation to a debate, but don’t be fooled. You may win the debate, but you won’t win any relationship points.

For more on how to validate someone’s feelings, see the article on my website.

Meanwhile, just for fun…

Why not leave a comment about something you’re feeling negative about right now? I’ll validate your response so you can see what it feels like to get away with being negative.

I think you’ll find it makes you feel more positive about yourself and your life.


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0 thoughts on “How to Deal With Negativity”

  1. I’m finally emerging from my prolonged state of grief and have nothing negative to proffer. I have made the “positive spin” mistake you refer to and regretted it. Thanks for the excellent advice re: validating the negative for a positive outcome.

  2. Definitely an approach to relating that everyone needs to hear about, I think. The way I tend to see it, if someone is coming to me and complaining, they are really feeling as if they are unseen by the world or by someone else, and they’re needing me to see them for who they are, which I can do by empathic reflection or just by listening.


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