There are two questions I get asked more than any other questions after a keynote. The first is “how do I recognize people in a way that’s sincere?” (see my post here about that answer). The second most common is “how do I recognize people I don’t like”?
There was a time I wouldn’t know how to answer that one.
Over time, as an organizational development practitioner, I’ve had a lot of experience working with people in the thick of negativity. Whether it was diving into a team environment imploding at the seams, being assigned a “dysfunctional” coaching client or teaching leaders how to have difficult conversations, I’ve learned over time that the heightened emotions make it seem much more complicated than it actually is. You see, if we can recognize people despite their flaws, negativity, and unresourcefulness, it makes it virtually impossible for them to tear you down and stay miserable around you (I said virtually impossible…some folks are pretty steadfast!)
When you first read the title, you probably immediately thought of someone (I’m a bit psychic…did I mention that before?) Even if you worked with them 25 years ago, you can probably remember their name and what the workplace looked like and the words they used. We encode emotional memories with much more clarity than neutral memories, so it’s normal for someone to jump to mind.
I am guessing you didn’t just think, “I should really message them on Facebook and see how they’re doing” let alone “hmm, I wonder how I could recognize them!”
Why didn’t that latter question pop to mind? Imagine how much less power that person would have over your life, career and workplace if they didn’t take up negative emotional real estate in your brain?
The easiest way to do this is to practice the art of recognition. Whether it’s to them directly or conjuring up anything about them that wasn’t “so bad”, it deflates the emotional and mental energy that person occupies in your brain.
Not only do you deserve to be rid of that strain, they may need you to throw them some empathy. Maybe the negativity comes from them not being happy with where they are. Maybe they feel used up, undervalued and unappreciated. Maybe they’re so frustrated and unresourceful they cannot find a more effective way to communicate their ideas.
Whatever the reason, I’m going to share three practical strategies you can use the next time someone complains and dishes out the negativity so you don’t have to be the equivalent of a human emotional sponge!
- Be Curious About Complaints
As my co-author Brenda Zalter-Minded and I share in our first book, Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness: Solution-Focused Strategies for Satisfied Staff, High Performing Teams & Healthy Bottom Lines, a complaint is not always a problem. A complaint may simply be a poorly worded request. Granted, it takes work to see it this way. At first glance, it can feel like a bit of a dig. It can sting. It can be annoying and poorly timed. However, instead of writing them off, blaming them and labeling them as a “Complainer”, take a moment to be curious if they actually have a suggestion or request.
- Forgive the Delivery
Maybe the message has been poorly delivered. If we only look at how an opinion is delivered, we miss what’s behind it. There could be a great suggestion, realistic view, or solution. If you remain curious, you are less likely to also fall into a problem-centric view of the situation or this person. You’re also less likely to view this person as a problem. You may ask questions and gain a better understanding of their views, ideas and solutions. You instead can see this person as temporarily unresourceful, and search for value behind the negativity. As the old adage goes, it’s not what you do or say, it’s how you make people feel. If you make someone who feels negative and unresourceful feel heard, valued and appreciated, they’ll be less likely to target negativity at you.
- Drop the Story
When we view someone as a “Complainer” and negative, it’s usually a story. That’s not all the person is. As Brene Brown suggests, ask yourself: “what is the story I’m telling myself?” This is also the underpinning on all the research and models about how to have difficult conversations. If you’re telling yourself a story, you can’t untangle yourself from your own negative view of someone. What part and parcel of the story? That person doesn’t deserve appreciation. It just serves to further divide and disconnect.
- Recognize Progress and Potential (Not Only the Exceptional)
We have a notion that only the top performers should get the accolades. In the 80s, popular management theory said fire your bottom 10% of performers. Now I’m not suggesting we never hold people accountable, however, imagine how much we disregard, hold back and fail to benefit from great ideas shared by people who’s delivery is critical or surly? Instead, what value is or could she bring if we could see behind the complaint? What ideas does he have if we could forgive the criticism? What improvements might a team offer if they felt included versus excluded? Recognize progress and potential, not just perfection and polish.
I hope this has given you some good insight about how recognition is true and important to everyone, not just the people who are always positive, the cheerleaders, the shining stars. That’s really only 20% of that bell curve of the employees in your organization. We still can recognize that seemingly least satisfied 20% because it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re poor performers; they may just be unsavvy communicators. Don’t let their negativity tell you that there is nothing to value. And believe me, when you can recognize somebody, even when they know and you know you don’t quite see eye to eye, that is one of your breakthrough opportunities for a truly meaningful connection.
And as Carl Rogers, humanistic psychologist said, “if there’s one thing every human being needs to grow, it is to be valued, heard, and listened to. So when you listen to people, even when they’re not at their best, and find something to recognize, that is your best opportunity to truly meaningfully connect with them.”
Know someone struggling with how to deal with negative people they work or live with? Why not share this post.