The Smart Way to Handle Negative Conversations at Work

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Don't get caught in the fray.

Workplaces are dynamic melting pots of talent, personalities and emotions. Add countless meetings, high-stakes deals, and impending deadlines to the mix and poor energy may begin to pervade an otherwise happy office. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably been drawn into another’s negative vibes and been somewhat derailed as a result. The good news is, research exists on how to best deal with a co-worker who is having a bad day and wants to vent about it, and how we might carry on to do our best work regardless.

We called on positive psychology expert and founder of the Langley Group, Sue Langley, to walk us through several strategies, based on positive psychology and neuroscience, for coping with colleagues (and in some cases ourselves) who are in a negative space and eager to engage with you about it.

1. Think before you engage (if at all)

If a colleague’s had a frustrating encounter with a fellow colleague or client, do not feel obligated to join their rage session. Remember that taking part in a negative discussion is a choice. Many of us might mindlessly join in, though a little self-awareness would invite us to think on it first. If you’re the one who’s fuming, make a point to check in with your physiological self. As physiology and emotions are inextricably linked, noticing an increase in temperature, breathing and heart rate can signal that you’re upset. To stop it from escalating, mindfully slow your breathing. There are now specialised tools such as the Spire to help us become more self-aware and harness the power of our breath.

2. Where possible, inject positivity

Rather than fight someone’s negativity (which only serves to multiply the bad vibes), a more effective strategy may be to inject positivity into it. How might you reframe the situation in a positive way? This could be as simple as asking your team, “What’s the best thing that happened last week?” or “Whose contribution have you valued in the past fortnight?”. In cases where there’s been a misstep or failure, focus on the takeaways and supporting your team the next time around, so the mistake isn’t repeated.

3. Label your emotions to lessen their impact

Feeling defensive? Insulted? Frantic? It can be helpful to label your emotions as they arise. Improving your emotional vocabulary and being able to accurately name how you feel has been shown to reduce the intensity of negative emotions. Social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman has found a seesaw effect – triggering the part of your brain that labels emotions reduces activity (and therefore intensity) in the amygdala. So, in effect, by simply 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. Try something like, “I may be wrong, yet I sense you are feeling angry. Can you elaborate?” This also encourages others to consider and label their emotions with greater accuracy: “Yes, I feel angry,” or “No, I am not angry, I am annoyed.”

4. Use curiosity to find common ground

Use your curiosity to look for some common ground – some way in which you are similar. 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?”, or “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.

5. When all else fails, keep it brief

If someone is on a negative rampage or can’t be reached at present, consciously and proactively limit your time spent trying to engage or help them. If you must engage with them, do so without becoming too involved. You might respond to negative talk with a simple, “Okay”, or “I see”, so they do feel heard. You can still challenge them, though do so with a hint of understanding, “I understand that is how you view the situation; I see it differently.”

Learn more about how the Langley Group can help you manage negative emotions in your workplace.

Learn about the Langley Group Institute’s Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.




April Smallwood

Digital editor Collective Hub

April is the digital editor of Collective Hub.

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