We’ve all had the experience of having to manage someone else’s negative behaviors. Maybe it’s a friend, family member, or coworker, but this person has a knack for always seeing the worst in things and they’re not afraid to share it.
Instead of letting their negativity get you down, here are some easy techniques you can use to help maintain a positive outlook.
How to Deal with Negative Behaviors
1. Learn the Art of the Positive Reframe
The ability to take a bad situation and change your perspective in order to see something good (or, in really difficult scenarios, to aim for just less awful) is an immensely useful life skill. Shifting perspective allows you to have some distance from your emotions and gives you space to respond in a way that is less reactive and more productive.
As a somewhat embarrassing example of the positive reframe: I once parked in a handicapped spot, completely oblivious to that fact. I know that sounds far-fetched, but when you combine a mental state of near-panic (due to the fact that I was running late) with a small sign placed far higher up on a telephone pole than the normal human sightline, that’ll do it every time.
I couldn’t deny that I’d messed up (this is why you should always pay attention to where you park!) and accidentally broken the law. Instead of getting angry at the situation or the police officer that issued the ticket, I paid the fee.
After doing so, I reminded myself that the town where I’d been ticketed was in a bad financial situation. I focused on the good they might be able to do with the money, like putting it toward a program to help the homeless or filling some of the many potholes that covered its streets.
Though I have no way to know what actually became of the money, imagining it could have helped someone less fortunate than me made my boneheaded mistake a little easier to get over.
2. Cultivate Empathy
Though it can feel very satisfying to get angry when someone does something unkind to you, a much healthier response is to try to remember you have no idea what is going on in that person’s life.
We usually think of people with depression, anxiety, or PTSD as appearing sad or weepy. However, it’s very common for a person struggling with mental health issues to be irritable and angry. If you keep that in mind, it can be easier to forgive an acquaintance’s negative behavior and realize it might be a sign they’re suffering.
One way I always try to practice this is when I’m driving. I live in the greater Boston area, so negotiating the roads can be pretty hectic. For a long time, I had a lot of road rage. I would yell at other cars and flip the bird, for example. I eventually realized it was only serving to make me feel more stressed out and overwhelmed, so I began trying to imagine what might be going on with the other drivers.
Now I imagine the guy tailgating me just got laid off. Or the woman who cuts me off on the highway is on her way to visit a sick loved one in the hospital. Reminding myself that the other drivers are people with complex emotional lives takes the focus away from my frustration and allows me to maintain a clear head when I’m in the car.
3. Don’t Take It Personally
It can be hard not to take things personally in the moment, especially when you’re feeling upset or angry. However, it’s important to remember, if someone is being negative around you or towards you — even if they insult you directly — ultimately it has very little to do with you. The way we act toward other people reflects much more about what’s happening internally with us, than it does those with whom we’re interacting.
Think about a time you were really mean to someone – were you in a great mood, feeling good about life that day? Probably not. More likely, you were already feeling lousy and that person was just the unlucky recipient of your frustration. If you realize that other peoples’ negative behavior isn’t really about you, you can let it go by without being bothered by it.
Before grad school, I spent a couple of years working at a call center for a behavioral health insurance company, where I answered questions about benefits and provided referrals. This frequently involved being yelled at by angry callers.
At first I let their frustration and unkindness get to me. I remember one caller who was so irate about the gaps in his insurance coverage that he began cursing, shouting, and insulting me. As I had no control over the information I was sharing, this was the epitome of shooting the messenger.
After he slammed the phone down, I promptly burst into tears. After I’d calmed down, one of my coworkers helped me to realize the caller was in pain and lashing out, and he would have done so to anyone. From then on, reminding myself of that incident made it much easier to keep my cool when, inevitably, I was on the receiving end of another angry tirade.
4. Kill ‘Em with Kindness
One of the single greatest skills I learned as a teenager working in retail was the power of being unfalteringly friendly in the face of a customer’s anger and frustration. Instead of allowing that negative person to rile me up, I would just keep throwing kindness at them. Even if I had to plaster a fake smile on my face just long enough to end the interaction, it was still better than allowing someone else’s negativity to ruin my day.
This tactic works better in the short-term, as with a frustrated customer. However, it can also come in handy when you have to deal with someone on an ongoing basis. In one of the aforementioned retail jobs I had many years ago, I had a coworker whose attitude and demeanor were so sour and unpleasant that she was quite difficult to work with.
She would spend the majority of our shifts together gossiping and complaining about all the ways in which the job made her miserable. Recognizing early on that I was going to be stuck spending a lot of time with her, I made a concerted effort to be as friendly as possible.
While my kindness didn’t change my coworker’s nasty disposition, it ultimately made it easier for us to get along and at least be cordial to one another.
5. When All Else Fails, Practice Radical Acceptance
Sometimes, when dealing with someone who insists upon acting in a negative, unfair, judgmental, or toxic way, you just have to throw your hands up and admit defeat. Ultimately, you can’t do anything to change that person. They’ve become who they are through a series of events (many of which were probably not great, hence the bad attitude!) and your unfaltering optimism won’t change that fact.
Recognizing that you have no control over the behavior of another human being can be really liberating. However, it’s essential that you maintain strong boundaries to ensure that your well-being isn’t negatively impacted by their behavior.
Instead of hanging out with a difficult coworker during your lunch break, maybe you make a plan to take yourself out instead. You don’t have to completely ignore your colleague at work or pretend to be their best friend. You can just be professional and say ‘no’ if you’re asked to spend more time with them.
Another aspect of acceptance is being okay with the possibility that the person might decide that they don’t like you. Just like you have no control over their negative behavior, you also don’t get a say in how they feel about you. A big part of maturing is recognizing that, just as you don’t have to like every person you meet, others also get to not like you. As long as you can maintain a cordial relationship and continue to be professional and detached, that will suffice for almost any situation.
While these tips won’t work in every situation, they will give you a solid foundation from which to build a comprehensive set of coping skills. With a little bit of practice and patience, you’ll be able to handle most negative behavior in a healthy, positive way.