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Ask Sue! Positive Strategies for Managing Negative Conversations

By Sue Langley | 7 December 2017

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How can we manage negative people and conversations in our everyday life? What are the best strategies for taking care of ourselves and others? How can we take charge of our emotions and positively influence the emotions of those around us? 

In our October 2017 newsletter, we asked you to send in a question about positive psychology, neuroscience or emotional intelligence that you would like me to answer. A common question we received was, “how do I manage getting pulled into another person’s negativity and negative conversations?”.

In this blog, I discuss why it is so easy to get drawn into negative conversations, and share neuroscience and positive psychology-based strategies to manage them.

Negative situations and the ensuing conversations can be common in daily life.  From a survival perspective we know we have five times more neurons dedicated to a threat response than a positive one. This is known as a ‘negativity bias’ and is what sometimes draws us to negative events and conversations.  They are easy to focus on, and they are often on our mind.  We often need more practice to focus on the positive side of life.

Complaining about negative situations or engaging in negative conversations can also feel like a bonding experience. When we complain about something – or usually someone – and the other person engages with us, it provides empathy, which reinforces the reward sensation.  We feel the other person agrees with us. The reinforcement of positive emotions from bonding over problems can trick us into thinking that our ‘co-rumination’ is productive, yet it actually perpetuates our negative feelings, and gives us an opportunity to dwell on the negative mood.

The good news is that we all have the power to influence the climate of our conversations, by intelligently using our emotions and understanding how our brains work. Using some of the strategies below you may be able to more effectively take care of yourself during negative conversations, intervene before conversations become negative, and help others shift out of a negative mindset and into a positive one!

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First

It is important to make sure you have the skills and strategies in place to take care of yourself if you find yourself in a negative conversation.

First, decide if you really want to engage in that conversation.  Then leverage your self-awareness.

Your physiology and your emotions are inextricably linked, so try and be aware of your physiology to help you choose the best strategy to employ in challenging situations. For example, when you are angry, your blood pressure and temperature rise and your breathing and heart rate increase. Your breathing can be a great indicator of your emotional state and is a powerful tool for managing your sympathetic nervous system response to emotions. By noticing our breathing and slowing it down, we are able to slow our heart rate and stave off the production of certain stress hormones like (cortisol and adrenaline). Also when we slow our breathing, our muscles relax, our blood pressure lowers, our cells are bathed in oxygen, and endorphins are released. This improves concentration and increases feelings of well-being. There are now specialised tools such as the Spire to help us become more self-aware and harness the power of our breath.

Another strategy is ensuring that you have enough brain ‘fuel’ (i.e. dopamine) to manage conversations appropriately.  Self-regulation and attention all require a lot of fuel. Being well rested is one way to fuel our brains so that we are better able to manage stressors. So, if it is late in the afternoon and you know that neither of you are at your best, perhaps suggest you have the conversation the following morning when you will be more positive, creative and proactive in your approach.

Communicate Positively

Injecting positivity into a situation may be more effective than fighting negativity. Frame the way you engage with your team and the people around you to ensure your conversations are positive.

Try teaching those around you about the Positivity Negativity Ratio. This is the tipping point for building your positive emotion. The exact ratio has been debated (Barbara Fredrickson advises a 3:1 positivity ratio while others suggest more), yet the idea is that we think, talk and behave at least three times positively for every one time negatively.

A great strategy for starting your meetings or conversation to increase your positivity ratio is asking questions that put everyone in a positive frame of mind. For example, “what is the best thing that has happened that week?”, “what are you grateful for?” or “what contribution from someone else have you valued in the last week?” Focus on what has been achieved, recognise effort and give real evidence of what people have done well when praising them. If something has not gone well, focus on what was learnt and how you will be successful next time!

Shelly Gable’s research around active-constructive responding also suggests that supporting people when good things happen is as important as supporting them when bad things happen. Concentrate on asking questions which encourage the person to talk about their good news and savour their positive emotions. Show sincere enthusiasm and a genuine interest in their good events. This is a great way to build and strengthen relationships.

Let people know you are trying to be more positive in your communication and recruit them to help you and challenge you when you start to drop into a negative mode.

If someone is genuinely down – as opposed to having a whinge – please don’t go the complete opposite and start communicating in a high energy positive way.  That is just annoying.  Yet you can show empathy without getting caught in a negative conversation. 

Label Emotions

Label your emotions as they arise. Improving your emotional vocabulary and being able to accurately label how you feel has been shown to reduce the intensity of your negative emotions.  This work by social neuroscientist, Matt Lieberman, has found a seesaw effect – triggering the part of your brain that labels emotions, reduces activity (and therefore intensity) in the amygdala.  So, just by saying “I feel angry” you can actually feel less angry.

Similarly, we can often disarm an emotionally charged situation by acknowledging what other people are feeling. “I may be wrong, yet I sense you are feeling angry, tell me more?” This encourages others to consider and label their emotions with greater accuracy: “Yes, I feel angry,” or “No, I am not angry, I am annoyed”.  We often explain this as ‘talking to the limbic brain.’

Employ empathy and compassion

Sometimes a small gesture of kindness can be the biggest source of change. Could you complete an unexpected random act of kindness on this person? To the other person it could make the difference between being in a terrible mood to feeling supported and energised.

Try to compassionately understand the emotions that may be fuelling the negativity; what ‘beneath the surface’ may have been triggered? Compassion buffers you against stress, increases your social connectedness, and builds reciprocal feelings of compassion in others.

Where appropriate, smile or use humour. Create that connection, open communication, and through your empathy you may be able to trigger the mirror neurons in the area of the brain responsible for empathy in the other person.

It’s important to watch out not to overuse empathy or compassion, as matched with a chronically negative person, this can become very draining. Know when it is appropriate to engage with empathy and understanding, and when to use an alternative tool in your toolkit.  

Match Their Energy Levels

All emotions have energy behind them – sometimes high energy, like anger, or low energy, like sadness. Try shifting the intensity level in your behaviour, while keeping the emotion neutral. For example, if you have an angry customer, being calm or serene may further fuel their high intensity negative emotion. If you act with higher intensity energy, being neutral and assertive, confirming you have understood and will address their issue, this suggests urgency and validity and is more likely to diffuse their high intensity negative emotion.

This is the same as a friend who is experiencing a low energy negative emotion, as mentioned above.

Be Curious and ask the Right Questions

According to Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discovering the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life, curiosity is a critical positive psychology strategy that gives us a greater capacity to tolerate anxiety and distress while staying mindful and connected.

Use your curiosity to look for some common ground – some way in which you are both similar. Brains like people like us so it will help to calm the other person’s threat response.

Ask open questions to help the other person shift into a more positive mindset, such as “if we can’t influence that, then what can we influence?” “what would help you right now?” “What small action could you take to improve the situation?”. The questions we ask frame our conversations, and focusing on positive actions they can take will create a sense of personal efficacy, producing positive emotions and reducing stress.

Sometimes people are not ready for exploration and getting themselves out of a situation.  Sometimes, as mentioned above, all they want is attention and empathy and to experience the bond of shared complaining.

Leverage Your Strengths

Consider what strengths you can use to approach the conversation in a constructive way. Strengths are great tools as they can be energising, which can be really useful if you are engaging with a de-energising situation.

Could you use the strength of honesty to speak to someone kindly about how their behaviour is impacting you both? They may not be aware and may be able to modify their behaviour.

Could you use the strength of humour to reframe the experience? Redefining a negative experience in a funny way can help counteract the brain’s natural impulse to focus on the negativity in a situation. Just be mindful of your own humour being appropriate and not sarcastic or mocking.

Again, if kindness, compassion or empathy are strengths for yours, just be wary of over-using them in a situation that can quickly becoming draining.

Any strength can be used to handle these situations – self-awareness, curiosity, creativity, courage. Just consider whether you might be the one creating the negativity, and start with self.

Strengths Spot

Leverage curiosity to find the strengths in the other person. Could you view their energy as passion? What value does this person add that you can respect? Do they perhaps have ‘Counterpoint’ as a strength?

If you need to spend a lot of time with the person in question, give yourself a visual reminder to think kind thoughts, or think about that person’s strengths so you don’t drop into negativity around them.

Choose to Keep Interactions Brief or Limited

If all else fails, sometimes it is best to choose not to engage with particular individuals or situations. Consciously and proactively set limits or boundaries for yourself, and keep an emotional distance. Where communication is necessary, do so without becoming engaged, meeting negative talk with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘I see’ (yet responding to more constructive conversations with enthusiasm). Or even challenging “I understand that is how you view the situation, I see it differently.”

If you feel able, you may want to express to this person that while you appreciate their friendship, you are feeling that the relationship is negatively impacting your wellbeing. While difficult, this could be an important wake-up call for them and give them the clarity to change and improve their own wellbeing.

So…

Next time you are faced with a negative conversation, take a few moments to check in with yourself and consider the response that will be most effective for you and for others. Choose one or more of these actions to take charge of your emotions and positively influence the emotions of those around you. Because our brains are amazingly plastic, practising these techniques and creating positive habits will train our brains to handle stress more effectively and become more positive!

Read more tips for managing emotions in our Tools & Techniques Workbook

About the Author: Sue Langley

Sue Langley

Sue Langley is a speaker, master trainer, global business consultant, researcher and leading advisor on the practical workplace applications of neuroscience, emotional intelligence and positive psychology. She is CEO and founder of the Langley Group of companies and creator of the world's first government accredited Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.

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