The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Dealing With Negativity:
Protection From The Storm

There's only one thing you need when you face
a storm of negativity in the workplace.
No, it's not an umbrella.

Last week, I was enjoying a warm and sunny afternoon outside. Suddenly a few clouds started to appear. No big deal. Before I knew it, I was running to the car in a downpour. Sometimes I know a storm is coming and I'm prepared for it. Other times it catches me totally by surprise. The same is true of a storm in the workplace. The impact of being unprepared is just a lot bigger at work.

Negativity in the workplace is a lot like a rainstorm. Sometimes we know it's coming and we're prepared for it. Other times, we're doing our work, minding our own business, and negativity jumps right up and bites us. We can be caught in a downpour really quickly.

One of my managers once told me to "just smile" when faced with negativity at work. Thanks, but no thanks. That's like standing in the rain without an umbrella. I can think of a ton of things I'd rather do than face a storm of negativity with nothing but a smile. Unfortunately, some of my ideas over the years weren't much better. Here are some things I've tried and seen others try:
  • You can go on the offensive. 
  • You can choose to be defensive. 
  • You can take it personally. 
  • You can assign blame to someone else. 
  • You can throw a tantrum, quiet or otherwise. 
  • You can even share negativity, using a kind of reverse pay-it-forward approach.
Any one of those reactions might make you feel better in the moment. None of them, though, help you actually deal with negativity in a productive way. They don't give you protection from the storm. They just leave you standing in the rain. Your best bet is to have a go-to approach that actually works.

What works? The mightiest of weapons: a simple truth.

A Simple Truth

What do I mean by "a simple truth"? A simple truth is something that can't be denied by anyone involved in a situation. It's stating the obvious, like a tether to reality. It may be a statement about the situation you're in. It may be a statement about your thoughts on what was just said. It's almost always followed by an acknowledgement of the other person involved.

Negativity has a way of picking up steam. It can quickly become about so much more than the thing that initially triggered it. The purpose of a simple truth is to anchor everyone involved back to the current situation or discussion. It gives you an opening to move everyone beyond negativity.

Let's start with an easy example.
Say your kids are complaining about a picnic being cancelled due to rain. Your simple truth might be: "It's too cold and rainy for us to enjoy a picnic outside." Or you might say: "I'm sorry that it's raining and our picnic was interrupted." Done. There's generally no argument against a simple truth. Your simple truth refocuses yourself and others on reality and directs the discussion away from negativity. To keep complaining doesn't really make sense. So in this situation, you might go on to say: "I know you're disappointed. Let's head back to the house and have an 'inside' picnic while we watch a movie." Or "Let's go to McDonald's instead."
When you state a simple truth, you bring the focus back to what's real and what matters. The idea of a simple truth may seem too easy to combat negativity in the workplace. It's remarkably effective and here's why. When you state a simple truth in any moment of tension, it does three things:
  1. It disarms the person who is creating the drama. You can't argue with a simple truth.*
  2. It acknowledges the situation and the person involved.
  3. It opens the door to move beyond negativity.
*Note the word "simple."  Important distinction.

With a simple truth and the acknowledgement that follows, you either shut negativity down or turn it around almost every time.

How It Works At Work

The more you practice, the better you get at using simple truths. This approach can be used with your boss, a co-worker, customers, friends, and family members. Interesting side note: simple truths work on your own negativity too.

The best way to understand the power of a simple truth is to see it in action. Here are some examples. In each case, you'll see the simple truth underlined, followed by an acknowledgement, and a redirection to either have more productive discussion or stop it altogether.

1. Someone attacks your idea.

When someone attacks you or your idea, a simple truth is really simple. The simple truth is the fact that you disagree and that it's okay to disagree. Sometimes you have to find your way to agreement and sometimes you don't. But the disagreement itself is fine. The minute you call it fine, you take away the power of negativity to make it not fine and take on a life of its own.

It's possible that the other person is just looking for a reaction. When you state a simple fact and then acknowledge the other person in some way, it takes the wind out of their sails. At that point, you can decide to shut down the discussion or redirect it, depending on your situation. If the discussion continues, it will be more productive (and less negative) by default.

Remember:  You can't prevent someone from attacking you. You can only control your reaction and try to move beyond the negativity to avoid wasting your time and energy.
"That's never gonna work. That's a bad idea. You can't do that."
Example A:  "I can always count on you to tell me what you think. Thanks for that. I'll let you know how it turns out."
Example B:  "I really appreciate that you're not afraid to say what's on your mind. I'm not surprised by your reaction, but thanks for letting me know how you feel." 
Example C:  "I can tell you have strong opinions on this. It's good for the business that we have different perspectives. We can learn from each other. Tell me more about your concern. Then I'll tell you why I believe in this idea."
Example D:  "I'm surprised we don't agree. I know you care about x, y and z as much as I do. I may not have explained my idea clearly. Help me understand why you think this won't work. Then I'll tell you why I think it will."
Example E:  "It's clear that we disagree and that's okay. But we have to come to full agreement. So let's identify the things we agree on, and then we can focus on the few areas where we disagree."
Example F:  "I know you have a lot of experience in this area. I value your perspective. I think you'll see what's good about my idea when I share more information. You may be able to help me make this idea even better."

2.  Someone is flat-out picking a fight.

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that some people just like to pick fights. They push, they bully, they thrive on conflict. Their goal is to dominate. Often they don't even care about the win. In these situations, you've got to be a little more direct. Using a slight push-back helps to diffuse the bully's efforts to pick a fight. You nudge them to either be productive or be quiet.

Remember:  Truth trumps noise (random negativity) almost every time. Force a bully to move beyond noise, to state a productive or valuable opinion, and often he or she has nothing to say. They may just go away instead.
“You’re wrong. I think you’re going about this all wrong. I don’t agree at all.” 
Example A: "Wow. That's a really strong statement. I didn't know this was something you cared so deeply about. Tell me more about your thoughts on this."
Example B: "I didn't realize you had so much perspective in this area. What is it that you'd like to see done differently?"
Example C: "I appreciate your perspective. We just disagree. What's great is that we don't have to agree, and we don't even have to talk about it when we disagree. Let's talk about something else instead."
Example D: "I think it's great that we challenge each other. Particularly when we do it productively. I'm happy to talk about this with you, but I want to be sure I understand the real issue. What specifically is your concern?"
Example E: "I think I fully understand your point. Thank you. I have to admit that I'm not sure, though, why we're having this discussion. Why is this on your mind? Does this impact you in some way that I'm not aware of?"
Example F: (Particularly good with bosses.) "I respect you. I appreciate your perspective. I'm happy to have this conversation. Can you share more specifics about your concern, or help me understand what expectation I may have missed?" 

3. Someone is complaining.

This situation is all too common in the workplace. Some people just like to complain. You can probably name several people you work with every day who are negative, co-workers and clients alike. The objective of a negative person is to pull you in. Your objective is to be an unworthy partner in the game, so the other person takes their negativity somewhere else next time. At the same time, you don't want to jeopardize your relationship or make them feel worse than they already do. The range of issues you may be dealing with here is broad. Your potential responses are remarkably similar.

Remember:  If someone wants to be negative, you can't change that. All you can control is whether (and how) you engage. Sometimes all the other person wants is validation that it's okay to feel the way they do. That's easy enough for you to give. Just don't be pulled into their storm.
"Blah blah blah. This stinks. Blah blah blah." (Or something like that.)
Example A:  "I can see why you feel the way you do. You must be very <whatever emotion they're feeling>. I'm sorry I can't help. I hope next time we talk, it's all going much better for you."
Example B: "I can tell this has been weighing on your mind. What else can we talk about to take your mind off of it? How about ____?"
Example C: "I know other people have been in this situation and I'm sure they felt the same way. Who do you know that's been in this situation before? Maybe they can help you with ideas on how to handle it? I just don't have any insights for you. I'm sorry." 
Example D: "That is a terrible situation. I'm so sorry you're in it. They say that things like this happen to people who are strong enough to handle it. I'm sure you'll get through this. If I think of any ideas that I think will help, I'll let you know."
Example E: (Particularly good with customers.)  "It's very stressful when you're <in this situation>. I completely understand why you feel the way you do. Unfortunately, I can't really change <the situation> right now, but let's try to identify what I can do to make you feel better? What if...?"

Bottom Line

Dealing with negativity at work impacts our job satisfaction. We all feel negative on occasion. It's completely natural. Sometimes, though, the negativity around us is frequent or intense. Knowing how to diffuse it, and keep from being pulled into it, is one of the greatest skills you can master. Not only will you be more satisfied, you'll also be more successful in your career.

When faced with negativity, start with a simple truth to call it what it is. "This situation is stressful." "We're all busy and emotions are running high." "We clearly disagree and that's okay." Whatever your simple truth is, say it. It provides a context for why negativity exists in the first place and it helps everyone recognize it for what it is. Once you "call it," it's harder for others to move forward with negativity.

When you're dealing with others who are negative, know that more than anything they usually just want to be acknowledged and heard. To the extent that you find some value in their perspective, tell them. It isn't a sign of weakness and it doesn't signal that you agree with what they're saying or how they're saying it. It may be that all you can do is acknowledge that you understand whatever the other person is saying or feeling. Using a simple truth to diffuse negativity has only one purpose: to move from tension to productive discussion, or dismissal of the discussion altogether.

I've had many opportunities to learn about negativity over the years. The lessons have been continuous and sometimes really hard for me. I've learned that negativity doesn't ever serve you well, even if you're just following someone else's lead. Don't let yourself be baited. Once you're in it, you can't easily get out and you become part of the problem.

Your only real protection from the storm of negativity is to keep from standing in the rain in the first place. Don't engage whenever possible. Shut it down gracefully or do the work to turn it around. If you're the one who stays cool in a heated or negative discussion, you increase your ability to positively influence others enormously. In life and at work, having a positive influence is all that really matters when all is said and done. (For more on staying cool in heated discussions, read this article.)

If you're not convinced that this works, try a simple truth for yourself the next time you face negativity. I think you may be pleasantly surprised at how well it protects you from the storm.

More soon,