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9 Words To Stop Negative People From Sucking The Energy Out Of The Room


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We’ve all been in those meetings where most people are trying to do something positive and constructive, but there’s one person who keeps sniping and oozing negativity over every good idea.

Someone says, “I think this new software will really help our productivity.” But the negative person immediately snaps “Oh please, this company never gets new technology right,” thus casting a pall over the rest of the meeting.

Sadly, those types of negativity bombs are being launched more frequently these days. One of my recent studies, called Fake News Hits The Workplace, surveyed more than 3,000 leaders about lying and other bad behaviors in the workplace. Among our many findings, we discovered that 53% of people have seen an increase in Criticism, 48% have seen an increase in Dismissing others’ ideas and 36% have seen an increase in Hostility or disparaging others.

What our data shows is that if you’ve been feeling like there’s more vitriol and negativity these days, you’re right. And it’s very much infecting our workplaces. So, what can you do about it?

Imagine you’re in a meeting and you hear someone make one of those blanket negative statements (e.g. “that will never work,” “this company doesn’t care about its employees,” “we’re just gonna get trounced by the competition,” etc.). The 9 words you’re going to say are “I’m curious, what evidence brought you to that conclusion?”

What happens next follows a pretty typical pattern. The negative person might say “oh, you know, we’ve just never been good at implementing new technology” or they might say “well, it’s just obvious.” But regardless of what they say exactly, they typically evidence that there’s not a lot of factual basis for their negativity.

There are generally four layers in any conversation: Facts, Interpretations, Reactions and Ends (FIRE). Facts are those things that you could see, hear, videotape, and validate. Facts are objective, provable, and verifiable. But negative people don’t tend to traffic in facts; they much prefer interpretations. The human brain is an interpretation machine. It doesn’t show us the world as it is, but rather as it’s useful for us. This is why we all have different perceptions of the world, sometimes radically so. The brain perceives a fact, and then, almost instantaneously, it sifts through all our personal past experiences and knowledge to assign meaning, or intent, to that fact.

So the negative person takes a fact, like our company is implementing new technology, and they interpret that to mean that this new implementation is going to be awful, the technology won’t work, etc. They’ve left the world of facts and jumped feet first into the realm of interpretations. That means that your job is to gently force them back into dealing with facts.

When you make a negative person think through whether they have any factual support for their negativity, a few things happen. First, it becomes clear that they don’t really have any factual support for their negativity. And if they have some facts to back them up (e.g. “well, the last software we implemented went so badly that the company paid to have it uninstalled”) you will typically still have room to push back (e.g. “that’s true, but what about the one before that? And don’t we have a different team of leaders now? Is it really true that all technology installs go poorly?”)

Second, while you’re trying to help the negative person overcome their default negativity, you’re really playing to the rest of the room. The power that negative people wield is that their negativity is contagious and can cast a pall over nearly any group. So regardless of whether you’re ultimately able to convince the negative person to become more positive, you need to show everyone else in that meeting that this blanket negativity is factually unfounded. And you do that by gently revealing the spurious (or nonexistent) factual evidence for this person’s negative interpretations.

Third, there are too few people that will directly challenge these negative people. The thinking is often that ‘someone else will handle this’ or ‘it’s just Bob being Bob.’ But whatever the rationale, someone does have to jump in and tackle the negative person head on. The danger is that if you confront negativity with more negativity (e.g. “stop being so darn negative!”) you only make matters worse.

Instead, our simple nine-word phrase, “I’m curious, what evidence brought you to that conclusion?” is very nonconfrontational. We’re just asking a simple question, from a position of curiosity, but it’s also a question that will reveal the negative person to be a factually hollow fount of ill will. But by exposing them gently, we evidence compassion while still showing the rest of the room that there’s no rational reason to be negative. And by being the one person willing to stand up to negativity, we breathe fresh life back into our meeting.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and the author of Truth At Work.

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We’ve all been in those meetings where most people are trying to do something positive and constructive, but there’s one person who keeps sniping and oozing negativity over every good idea.

Someone says, “I think this new software will really help our productivity.” But the negative person immediately snaps “Oh please, this company never gets new technology right,” thus casting a pall over the rest of the meeting.

Sadly, those types of negativity bombs are being launched more frequently these days. One of my recent studies, called Fake News Hits The Workplace, surveyed more than 3,000 leaders about lying and other bad behaviors in the workplace. Among our many findings, we discovered that 53% of people have seen an increase in Criticism, 48% have seen an increase in Dismissing others’ ideas and 36% have seen an increase in Hostility or disparaging others.

What our data shows is that if you’ve been feeling like there’s more vitriol and negativity these days, you’re right. And it’s very much infecting our workplaces. So, what can you do about it?

Imagine you’re in a meeting and you hear someone make one of those blanket negative statements (e.g. “that will never work,” “this company doesn’t care about its employees,” “we’re just gonna get trounced by the competition,” etc.). The 9 words you’re going to say are “I’m curious, what evidence brought you to that conclusion?”

What happens next follows a pretty typical pattern. The negative person might say “oh, you know, we’ve just never been good at implementing new technology” or they might say “well, it’s just obvious.” But regardless of what they say exactly, they typically evidence that there’s not a lot of factual basis for their negativity.

There are generally four layers in any conversation: Facts, Interpretations, Reactions and Ends (FIRE). Facts are those things that you could see, hear, videotape, and validate. Facts are objective, provable, and verifiable. But negative people don’t tend to traffic in facts; they much prefer interpretations. The human brain is an interpretation machine. It doesn’t show us the world as it is, but rather as it’s useful for us. This is why we all have different perceptions of the world, sometimes radically so. The brain perceives a fact, and then, almost instantaneously, it sifts through all our personal past experiences and knowledge to assign meaning, or intent, to that fact.

So the negative person takes a fact, like our company is implementing new technology, and they interpret that to mean that this new implementation is going to be awful, the technology won’t work, etc. They’ve left the world of facts and jumped feet first into the realm of interpretations. That means that your job is to gently force them back into dealing with facts.

When you make a negative person think through whether they have any factual support for their negativity, a few things happen. First, it becomes clear that they don’t really have any factual support for their negativity. And if they have some facts to back them up (e.g. “well, the last software we implemented went so badly that the company paid to have it uninstalled”) you will typically still have room to push back (e.g. “that’s true, but what about the one before that? And don’t we have a different team of leaders now? Is it really true that all technology installs go poorly?”)

Second, while you’re trying to help the negative person overcome their default negativity, you’re really playing to the rest of the room. The power that negative people wield is that their negativity is contagious and can cast a pall over nearly any group. So regardless of whether you’re ultimately able to convince the negative person to become more positive, you need to show everyone else in that meeting that this blanket negativity is factually unfounded. And you do that by gently revealing the spurious (or nonexistent) factual evidence for this person’s negative interpretations.

Third, there are too few people that will directly challenge these negative people. The thinking is often that ‘someone else will handle this’ or ‘it’s just Bob being Bob.’ But whatever the rationale, someone does have to jump in and tackle the negative person head on. The danger is that if you confront negativity with more negativity (e.g. “stop being so darn negative!”) you only make matters worse.

Instead, our simple nine-word phrase, “I’m curious, what evidence brought you to that conclusion?” is very nonconfrontational. We’re just asking a simple question, from a position of curiosity, but it’s also a question that will reveal the negative person to be a factually hollow fount of ill will. But by exposing them gently, we evidence compassion while still showing the rest of the room that there’s no rational reason to be negative. And by being the one person willing to stand up to negativity, we breathe fresh life back into our meeting.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and the author of Truth At Work.

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