Handling the Grumps: How to Fight Off Others' Negativity

Learn how to deflect bad attitudes when complainers drag you down.
March 4, 2014

At home, at work, in all aspects of life, you will face people who see the glass half-empty, the deck stacked against them, the grass always greener in someone else’s yard. You would rather not deal with these people. They stomp on your mojo and bring a productive day to a grinding halt. But unfortunately you can’t always duck out on Debbie Downer, especially if she is a customer whose business you value or a longtime friend who has seen you through tough times, pessimistic attitude and all. So what can you do when you feel someone’s negative energy encroaching on your personal space?

First thing to try: a little humor. “Many times, whining is so second-nature people don’t even realize they are being negative until you point it out,” says Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule. Sometimes a lighthearted joke about grouchiness being contagious can bestow the gift of self-awareness upon complainers.

If humor’s not working, try killing them with kindness. Gordon says the best weapon against negativity is your own arsenal of positive vibes. “You’re dealing with an energy vampire. Negative people can suck the life right out of you.” They also suck the cash right out of the economy: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Gallup report that workplace negativity costs the nation’s businesses $3 billion a year because of missed deadlines; time lost to complaining or gossiping, tardiness and leaving early; and similar time-wasting or counterproductive actions.

Counter a colleague’s chronic complaints with your own sunny forecasts about your business’s potential. Override your spouse’s gloomy outlook with happy chatter about upcoming weekend plans. “You don’t have to point out reasons their negativity isn’t warranted,” Gordon says. “Simply ignore it by putting on your game face and don’t take it off.”

Gordon recalls a former boss who “was one of the most negative people I know—always complaining. I made it my personal mission to fight off his negativity and go to work every day with nothing but positive thoughts. I could see how much my enthusiasm was annoying him, but I refused to give in. Staying positive gave me power over the situation.”

Of course, you may wind up working a lot harder to stay upbeat than he does to be a whiner: As luck would have it, negative and positive energy are not weighted equally. “It takes about three positive experiences to cancel out one negative interaction,” Gordon says. So if you criticize your spouse or toss another verbal jab at him or her, you’ll need to initiate three feel-good exchanges to restore your marriage to its previous, more positive status.

No matter who in your life is causing you grief, dealing with whiny, grouchy people is at best stressful and at worst destructive to your happiness. The secret to staying sane starts with letting go of the notion that you can reform the other person’s outlook, and focusing instead on how to keep yourself from being sucked into that quicksand of negativity. “The only thing you can truly control is your own attitude,” Gordon maintains. “Gandhi said, ‘I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.’ You can choose how much another person’s attitude affects you.”

Till Death Do Us Part?

You knew you were signing up for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, but why-oh-why didn’t someone mention the whining and complaining part?

In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Michigan observed the attitudes that spouses had toward each other over the course of their relationship. They reported that as married couples got deeper into their years together, their perceptions of each other’s negativity increased. The study, which was published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, found this was not true in other relationships, such as those with friends or with children. Why the growing sense of marital pessimism? The University of Michigan scientists suggest it’s less likely that your spouse has actually become more of a downer; rather, he’s simply become more open in sharing his full range of thoughts—the good and the bad.

Still, those complaints can be challenging and difficult to stop—what began as a gripe about the mess in the hallway leads to a larger whine about all the work that needs to be done on the house, followed by a gloomy recounting of financial issues preventing the work from being done, and spiraling, eventually, into a hell-in-a-handbasket premonition about the economy and job security. “Your No. 1 goal when you’ve got a whiner in your life is to not get trapped by them,” says Marie McIntyre, Ph.D., founder of Your Office Coach, an executive coaching company in Atlanta. “The problem really isn’t that they are going on and on; the problem is that you are listening.” Redirect the topic in a gloom-free direction, McIntyre advises. Take control of the conversation by saying something like, “Did I tell you about the movie I want to see this weekend?”

While a whiny partner is generally not cause for divorce, be on the lookout for two particular griping styles that may signal something more serious. In his research with more than 3,000 couples, relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., has found that in couples with complaints that include criticism of a spouse’s personality (“You are so selfish”) and defensiveness (“It’s your fault, not mine”), there is a higher probability that the marriage will fail. The reason? This type of negativity indicates their marital bond is weak. (And the reverse is true: Gottman found that the more positive that a couple’s feelings are toward each other and their marriage, the more likely it is to endure.)

The good news: While you can’t alter basic personality traits such as optimism and pessimism, you can help your partner change the way those sentiments are expressed. “Every single person on this planet complains,” points out Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clemson University and author of Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors. “But most of us are totally unaware of the tone we use and its impact.”

For instance, a matter-of-fact “It’s cold outside” is much more likely to elicit a sympathetic “I know, can you believe it?” versus a whiny-pitched “I can’t believe how cold it is outside. It’s killing me!”—which can be a turn-off, Kowalski says. “Because you have more contact with your spouse than just about anyone else in your life, it’s natural to use each other as sounding boards,” she explains.

Friendly Fire

When it comes to friendships, whiners and complainers are less harmful than you might think. Sometimes we use complaining as a way to “get the conversation going,” Kowalski says. Grousing about mutual friends, our jobs and even our families can be a way to form a common bond that allows conversation to flow more freely, she adds, and “negative comments are more likely to elicit a sympathetic response than a neutral or positive one.”

On the other hand, there are those friends whom Kowalski calls the yes-buts. “They’re the ones who are carrying on about how bad their situation is, and you say, ‘Well, why don’t you try… ’ and they immediately cut you off with a ‘Well, yes, but…. ’ These people do not want a solution to their situation. They just want to whine.”

In that case, the only person who is going to steer the conversation back to happier grounds is you. “Do not engage in their griping and do not let this become a case of one-upmanship of who has the worst things to complain about. It’s an easy trap,” Kowalski says. Instead, break the cycle by redirecting the conversation to positive topics. What are some proactive changes you’ve recently made in your life that you can share? What happy piece of news have you been waiting to tell him or her?

If you do find yourself trapped with a friend who can’t stop whining, remember: “Even when it’s annoying, most of us do it as a way to form a connection,” Kowalski says. Find a more positive experience to bond over and watch the whining disappear.

Customer Care

Part of what determines how badly a whiner grates on your nerves has to do with the way you interpret his complaints. When it comes to your business and its customer service, the golden rule still holds: The customer is always right. Take a hard, objective look at what he is upset about. Is there any validity in his issues with your product? Are there any steps you can take to address his request (which, underneath all that wah-wah-wah whining, is really what’s going on)?

“You need to shift your mindset from how this complaint affects you to how your actions can affect your customers,” says McIntyre of Your Office Coach. Let clients know you are there to solve their problems, she says, no matter how lengthy the gripe or annoying the whine.

Cheree Berry, owner of Cheree Berry Paper, a graphic design company in St. Louis that specializes in wedding stationery and custom invitations for clients, has seen it all when it comes to customer demands. “There are always those clients we just can’t seem to please, and we work hard to get to the root of the problem,” Berry says. Sometimes the complaints are design-related. But other times it’s clear the drama runs deeper. “We’ll get an overbearing mother-in-law or an opinionated sibling who gets in the way of the process,” Berry says, adding that she’s not above playing family therapist if it gets everyone back on track. “The main thing is to never lose your cool—although I’ve come close.”

Through the years, Berry has developed a strategy for handling tough customer moments. “If you’re upset, don’t respond right away. Take a minute to breathe or move onto something else before replying,” so that when you do deal with the client, you are in a calmer state of mind.

Ultimately, how you handle negative people in your life says as much about your personality as theirs. “You have a choice: Join them or rise above them,” Gordon says. “The easy thing is to let their attitude dictate yours.”


Are you a grump? Take a quiz to find out—and get to a happier status with helpful suggestions.

 

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