I’ll never forget my first day at my last job. I was the marketing coordinator at an architecture and engineering firm, and my new desk mate came storming into our workspace and slammed her portfolio down in a huff. Meanwhile, I nervously tried to appear consumed by my orientation packet as my mind raced. All I could think was, “What did I get myself into?”
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As time passed, I came to realize that my coworker had a tendency to focus on the negative; from all that was wrong with the firm and the industry, to the character flaws of our coworkers and management. But I also recognized her generosity, drive, and focus. The hard truth about negative people is that they’re everywhere, and you can’t always avoid them. While you may not want to be their best friend, it is possible to manage a working relationship with a negative person without losing your sanity in the process.
Come from a place of compassion
Everyone has bad days. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve sent a terse email or two when I’m feeling particularly stressed, but I will always be grateful for the colleague who is willing to forgive my lapse in manners and ask, “How can I help?” You never know what someone else is dealing with, so resist the urge to snap back and instead respond with compassion. At the very least, they will feel less isolated and less likely to snap at someone who is in their corner.
Commiserate, but don’t participate
It’s one thing to be a sympathetic ear and another to throw gas on the fire. You might even agree with a negative viewpoint, but the moment you start contributing to it is when it becomes your sticking point too. If someone wants to air their grievances, let them, as long as they understand that listening doesn’t equal tacit agreement.
Flip the script
If you find yourself on the other end of a gripe session on a daily basis and the perpetrator isn’t deterred by your lack of participation, it might be time for Plan C — change the subject altogether. Bring the focus back to something positive, and if they keep trying to steer the conversation back to a negative place, it might be time to extricate yourself entirely from the conversation. How do you do this? Tell them you just remembered that you have an email you need to send, a meeting to get to, anything that politely indicates that this conversation isn’t in your best interests right now.
If you’ve tried all of the aforementioned tactics to no avail, it’s time to consider additional action. Whether that’s addressing the issue head-on with the individual or taking it to an HR rep or your supervisor, you have to set some boundaries before your work environment becomes unbearable.
Just keep in mind that if you choose to take the issue to a higher level without addressing it with the individual, you may run the risk of damaging any working relationship you have with that person. Of course, in any situation where you feel your personal safety might be at risk, seek the most appropriate person in your organization to make sure it gets documented and ideally, resolved.
You be you
It can be really easy to get pulled into a negative direction when you’re sharing a contained space for several hours a day with people who have different views and experiences from your own. Recognizing that we’re all human and we all struggle with our own challenges on a daily basis helps frame our approach toward negative situations.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of someone looking to be heard, other times, it can feel like someone is trying to convince you to join their cause. Holding true to your own values, while showing compassion and understanding to others, can help you maintain your sense of self without confusing it with someone else’s.