I was once part of a conversation where someone said:
“In one team I was part of, it would really have helped if I’d known from the beginning that that one person didn’t mean to be negative but to think out loud.”
The conversation was about what kinds of situations are difficult to communicate in. The participants commented that the constant negativity of some people makes communication tricky. In their experience, a person is negative if they constantly shoot down other people’s suggestions, destroy everyone’s excitement by coming up with worst-case scenarios and always aim to dig up the worst things, the challenges and the difficulties about everything.
Negativity gets a bit heavy to deal with
It must be said that it is a bit hard to feel like one member of the team is never satisfied with anything. It’s very easy to categorise a person who seems negative as a killjoy and a nuisance without considering further the motivations behind their behaviour. What makes someone into that one person who always asks the irritating and difficult questions?
In a conversation with well-being expert Aliisa Holkko about strengths, I had an epiphany. Wonderful, necessary and even important strengths can cause challenges to people who have them if they’re over- or underutilised. I began by doing the VIA Character Strengths Survey and then browsed the list of the 24 character strengths considering which strengths can be read as negativity by other people.
The many important strengths on the flip side of negativity
Often a person who feels negative is prudent, aims to avoid unnecessary risks, to consider potential issues and guide the group to act in a way that doesn’t cause difficulties. On the whole, a wonderfully important characteristic. When overused, sometimes causes a person to see non-existent threats and to put the brakes on things with excessive caution.
A person who feels negative may also be someone who seeks a variety of information and different points of view to support their decisions (judgment). They aim to give guidance by bringing up their own experiences and views (perspective). Both of these are often highly valuable strengths. Sometimes, when overused, they lead to overanalysing or full-on analysis paralysis.
It’s also possible that a person who seems negative is very fair and brings up all sorts of issues and injustices more readily. Also, if a person constantly brings up their unpopular opinions and challenges a unanimous group, they can probably count honesty, bravery or perseverance among their strengths.
Understanding and listening help with negativity
As the comment in the beginning notes, “it would really have helped if I’d known from the beginning that that one person didn’t mean to be negative but to think out loud.” Being familiar with the other team members, their strengths and communication styles helps enormously to both put up with and process different situations. A person who feels difficult and negative transforms in our eyes when we understand their motives and give them the correct interpretation.
Because negativity often covers up worries, caution, different viewpoints, the desire to think carefully about things and the will to do things well and properly, it’s usually useful to listen to that sort of person. When their point of view is truly listened to and given enough space, that’s often enough for the negative person and their need to oppose a decision or an action decreases.
Ask and explain your own perspective
If listening and understanding doesn’t help and someone continues to belabour their negative comments, you could try asking about it:
”We’ve talked about this before, and I notice that you still regularly bring it up. What could I do to make you be OK with this decision and feel more peaceful and trusting?”
If you suspect that your own actions may sometimes be read as negativity, you can ask about it. Asking for feedback is one way to examine your own actions and also communicate about them. The more open we are about our own actions, the better other people understand us. The better we know one another, the easier and the more enriching team work becomes.
It’s a shame if misunderstandings lead us to label good and important strengths as negativity. Or if overusing our strengths transforms us into negative people, and we turn our own strengths against ourselves. We need different strengths and points of view. They make a team better and more versatile. That’s why it’s better to bring them up than to suffer through them.
TL;DR: Many good strengths can be interpreted as negativity
- A person who aims to dig up the worst parts, challenges and difficulties about everything can seem negative to others.
- It’s worth it to consider why someone always asks the frustrating and difficult questions
- A person who seems difficult and negative transforms in our view when we understand their motives and give them the correct interpretation.
- A person who feels negative might
- be careful and avoid risks
- seek a variety of information and different viewpoints to support their decision
- aim to give advice by bringing up their own experiences and views
- be very just.
- If you suspect that your own actions can sometimes be read as negativity, you can ask if others feel that way.