How do you deal with someone who is very negative?

During a recent training that we gave to managers, we discussed research by Teresa Amabile on inner work experience. One of the implications of Amabile's research is that, as a manager, it is wise to try to limit negativity in your own communications. When we addressed this, one participant asked, “But how do you deal with someone else who is very negative?” This question is understandable and provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the topic of negativity.

Almost everyone is negative

It may be helpful to start by stating that the negativity bias is a universal human trait. The negativity bias is the phenomenon that we notice negative information more easily than positive information and that we tend to give more weight to negative information than to positive information. Not everyone has the negativity bias to exactly the same extent, but almost all people have it regardless of the culture in which they grow up. There is only one group of people in which the negativity bias is much less prevalent (read here which group that is).

So, if you think of someone as “that negative person,” that's not entirely accurate. Almost everyone has the negativity bias. So you could say: we are all negative. The realization that almost everyone has this negativity may be mild. But there is a difference in how negatively people communicate.

Differences in dealing with negativity bias

Although everyone experiences the negativity bias, people differ greatly in how aware they are of it and how they deal with it. Some are very aware of their tendency to perceive and think negatively and have developed strategies to control this. Others are less aware of their negativity bias and may be more strongly influenced by it. People who are less aware of the negativity bias are often less reluctant to communicate negatively. They are less aware of the hindering effect that negative communication has on others and on their relationships with others.

Tips for dealing with negative communication from others

Dealing effectively with people who have little restraint in communicating in a negative way can be challenging. Here are some suggestions on how you can do that:

  1. Normality of negativity: Assume that it is in some sense normal (and at least understandable) for people to express themselves negatively. This will help you remain patient and understanding instead of becoming irritated or defensive.
  2. Show understanding: Show understanding when people make negative comments and acknowledge their perspective. This can help to reduce tension and promote more constructive dialogue.
  3. Ask questions about negative comments: If someone makes a negative comment, ask questions carefully to understand what that person finds important and what that person advocates. This can help reveal underlying concerns and values.
  4. Limit your own negative expressions: Limit your own negative expressions as much as possible and burden others as little as possible with your own negativity. This helps to prevent a negative spiral and promote a more positive interaction.
  5. Asking positive questions: Ask questions that give the opportunity to focus on positive experiences, such as progress achieved and what went well. This can help shift the conversation from negativity to a more balanced perspective.
  6. Use progression-oriented techniques: In teams, you can use progression-oriented techniques such as the circle technique and progression presentations. This can help shift the focus from problems to solutions and progress.
  7. Positive exceptions and past successes: Ask about positive exceptions and past successes to get a more balanced view and reduce negativity bias.
  8. Contagiousness of positive emotions: Be aware of the contagiousness of emotions. By adopting a positive attitude and sharing positive experiences, you can inspire others and improve the overall atmosphere.


Dealing with negativity from others requires awareness and conscious action. By understanding that negativity bias is a universal phenomenon and using the above techniques, you can promote a more constructive and positive interaction. It's important to remember that virtually everyone has this bias to some degree, and developing strategies to deal with it is a valuable investment in both personal and professional relationships.