In math, multiplying a negative by a positive gives you a negative answer. Ever notice the same thing happens in life? When a coworker complains and you try to inject something positive, the outcome is usually more negativity.
“When we hear negativity, our instinct is to try and cheer up the other person,” says Peter Bregman, author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. “But often it’s the worst thing you can do.”
That’s because listening to negative conversations makes us uncomfortable, and saying something positive in response only serves as a way to make the listener feel better, not the person who is complaining. This reaction doesn’t help the person who is venting because the listener’s comments are perceived as being argumentative.
“You are basically disagreeing with the other person’s feelings,” says Bregman. “You’re saying that they’re wrong; things really aren’t that terrible. This just makes them entrench more deeply in their perspective.”
Combating negativity with positivity can also make the complainer feel like you haven’t heard them. The person will likely continue with their rant, believing that they have to better explain their feelings to you.
What does work is empathy, says Bregman: “The number-one rule in conflict is making sure the other person feels heard,” he says. “When you agree with part of what they’re saying, you’re telling the person that you’re listening. More than wanting to be cheered up, they want someone to acknowledge their perspective.”
Agreeing also allows the person to stop holding so tightly to their position; it immediately softens them. If there isn’t a point on which you can agree, Bregman suggests using a statement such as, “I can see that you’re struggling.” This helps because it acknowledges that you’ve heard the other person’s feelings.
“You will visually see a person relax when they feel heard,” says Bregman.
It’s at this point that they’ll be more open to entering a conversation. To turn things from negative to positive, Bregman offers three possible techniques:
Look for one piece of the person’s complaint that might not be as bad as they think–the lesser of all of the “evils.” Start by talking about that piece, and suggest some solutions that have worked for you if you think they might be open to it.
You can also move the conversation into the positive by listening to the person and responding with, “I agree with you. What do you think would be the best way to resolve this?” This direction acknowledges their feelings and moves them from complaining mode to solution mode, says Bregman.
If the conversation has no immediate solution and revolves around venting and not problem solving, Bregman suggests acknowledging the person’s feelings and changing the subject. This technique lets the other person know you’re no longer interested in listening to their complaining.
Diffusing negativity with negativity can be difficult, says Bregman: “Listening to someone else be upset takes emotional courage,” he says. “We don’t want to feel their hurt, but if we’re willing to tolerate the initial discomfort instead of falling back into our typical ‘cheering up’ reaction, it can create a much shorter cycle of negative to positivity.”