We've all worked with that person. Which person? The negative one who complains about everything, from looming deadlines and long commute times to the carb-heavy snacks and the slow elevator. The one who sighs when you ask her to do something even slightly outside of her job description. The one who names everyone else as the reason when asked why something was late. The one with the sign on her desk that reads, "Your lack of preparation does not constitute my emergency."

You know this person, right? We all do.  

This coworker can make it hard to work collaboratively, can make it tricky to make requests, and can make it nearly impossible to share feedback. It's that last element that can make this colleague so challenging to work with.

One of the reasons that feedback can be so hard is that it's ineffective to tell someone that they're being "negative." Why? Because being negative is an interpretation of behaviors, not a behavior itself.

While you might see complaining as negative, your colleague might see it as sharing her honest experience. While you might see pessimism as negative, your co-worker might view it as proactively considering possible negative outcomes. While you might see being demanding as negative, your officemate might regard it as holding a high bar. 

Telling someone that they're being negative isn't just ineffective, it can also make things worse. When we give people feedback about their personal character, rather than about specific behaviors or tasks, we heighten the risk that they experience feelings of social rejection. And guess what won't make someone less negative? Feeling rejected.

So what can you do?  Here are three strategies for working more positively with a negative person:

1. Be understanding.

Notice that I am not saying you need to have empathy (meaning, "feeling what that person feels"). I am choosing "understanding" because you may not feel what she feels. But you can probably understand that:

  • she may have issues going on in her work and life you don't know about
  • she learned to behave this way for reasons that makes sense to her, and that have helped her along the way 
  • she may not be aware of her impact on others (especially if nobody has been brave enough to bring this up)
  • she has some needs and values that aren't getting met
  • she is getting in her own way--and like all of us, may have a blind spot about it
  • she might want things to be different, and doesn't know how to go about it

Being understanding doesn't require you to communicate it directly to the other person (although go for it if you're up to it). It does require you to shift your mindset from "I don't get why anyone would act like this" to "I can see why someone might act like this" even if you wouldn't. 

2.     Take personal responsibility. 

It's highly likely you may not get this negative person to change her ways. So, change yours. Take personal responsibility for:

  • how you might be contributing to her behavior--even in some small way
  • how you night be contributing to an environment that supports her behavior
  • talking to your boss and colleagues about helpful strategies rather than complaining about her behind her back
  • recognizing if you're the person that other people come to air their grievances about her (and therefore contributing to a culture of gossip and avoidance)
  • creating your own happiness and positivity
  • setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with that person and others

3.     Try a new approach.

If you're reading this column, it's likely that what you're doing now to deal with a negative person may not be working. I suggest you run some short-term experiments to see if a different strategy provides some relief for you--and for the negative person. For example, if you've been:

  • keeping things "just business," try demonstrating interest in her personally
  • walking on eggshells, try being direct with your requests
  • judging her, try to see that she's expressing stress differently than you would (and that this stress may be invisible to you)
  • making the case that you're so different from her, discover areas of similarities 
  • suppressing her impact on you, share with her honestly
  • reluctant to give her more work, ask if there's anything you can do to be helpful
  • excluding her from social gatherings, invite her
  • avoiding her, offer her some positive feedback
  • frustrated by her, acknowledge her stress 
  • only seeing her as negative, find out what she is positive about and reinforce it

While you may not be able to totally change a negative person into a positive one, you can change yourself into the kind of person who can bring positivity to a difficult working relationship. 

Published on: Jan 29, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.