Like the old Saturday Night Live character, Debbie Downer, some people are only happy when they’re unhappy and bringing down everyone else around them too.
Here are eight tips for dealing with difficult people at work.
1. Don’t get dragged down — The old saying is “Misery loves company.” The most important thing is to be aware of who the Debbie and David Downers are in your company and to make sure they don’t suck you into their world of negativity. Keep your guard up!
2. Listen — It’s tempting to just tune these people out, but this rarely stops them. If anything, they’ll talk and argue more forcefully because they’ll think nobody cares about them. The best thing to do is to use good, normal active listening techniques, as you would for anyone else.
3. Use a time limit for venting — Remember that there is a difference between being a perpetual pessimist and having an occasional need to vent. Everybody has tough times, and sharing our feelings can make us feel better. Use the “5-minute rule” when it comes to this. Let your colleague vent for five minutes, but after that, assume that he’s entered Downer mode, and proceed with the next steps.
4. Don’t agree — It’s tempting to try to appease Debbie Downer to make him or her stop and go away. As the person complains about benefits or the boss or whatever, you might be inclined to give a little nod of your head or a quiet “yeah” or shrug a “what can we do?” Even though these responses seem harmless, they just throw fuel on the flames.
5. Don’t stay silent — If you are clearly listening but say nothing, Debbie Downer will interpret your silence as agreement. Worse, if others are present, they too will assume that you agree. Whether the complaint is about the boss or the benefits or the client, silence means you agree with the complainer.
6. Do switch extremes into facts — Negative people often speak in extreme terms that match their worldviews. They talk about “never” and “always.” Your first goal is to switch them to fact-based statements.
Negative Ned: Andy is such a slacker! He’s never on time for our morning meetings. How are we supposed to hit our deadlines when he’s never here?
You: Ned, you’re clearly frustrated. I seem to remember that Andy was on time at our meetings on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week. He was late on Thursday and Friday. So you mean he’s late frequently, not always; right?
7. Move to problem solving — People who whine a lot often feel powerless and believe that the situation is hopeless. Your only chance of ending their negativity is to help them to move into a problem solving mode. This doesn’t always work, but it’s the only antidote known.
8. Cut them off — If, after all your efforts, you deem these people to be hopelessly negative, you need to cut them off. Make sure they aren’t just venting for a few minutes, make sure you weren’t previously encouraging them, make sure they can’t switch to problem solving, and then politely shut them down.
You: Can we change the subject? You’re really bumming me out. If you want to vent for a couple minutes, fine. If you want me to help you solve the problem, fine. But life is too short to wallow. Let’s move on to something else, OK?