Turning a Negative Person Around
by Anne Warfield
There he is in the back row, with his arms crossed and a tough look on his face. Pretty soon he is picking a fight with you in the front of the room. Oh, we’ve all been faced with the curse of the negative person who desires nothing more than to prove you wrong. My simple advice is, don’t even go there!
I’ve seen too many presenters lose wonderful ground they’ve made with their audience because they focus their whole energy on taking on one negative person and trying to turn them around. Remember, not everyone will want to hear what you have to say, and not everyone will be interested in even being in the room.
The person might be negative because what you are saying challenges their beliefs, will cause them extra work, they hate change, or they simply have a negative view on life. You’re not an evangelist trying to convert people. You are there simply to add value for those who are open to listening.
Having said this, there are a few occasions when you may feel you absolutely need to challenge that negative person. Here are a few tips on how to do that:
1. If you know in advance who the negative people are, try to arrange the room ahead of time to mix them in with the positive people.
This will stop the negative people from clustering in the back of the room.
2. At some point in your presentation, ask each person to turn to a partner and do an exercise or answer a question that can only be responded to positively.
For example, you could ask them to share two things they’ve learned, how they will apply these two new things, and why they believe what they’ve just learned won’t work. And then immediately flip it to how they can solve each of the arguments they came up with so they will work. The main point here is to get them to start a dialogue with another person.
3. Then have the two partners get together with two other partners so they make a group of four. Have them repeat the exercise.
4. Then bring it up front.
This technique lets the negative person’s peers do the work of changing the negative attitude. They may be comfortable the first time they respond negatively to your exercise, but soon they will feel uncomfortable if the other person was positive with what they have learned. Then, when you have them make another group of four, if they get rebuked by this group as well, by the time you bring the discussion to the front of the room they will latch onto one of the ideas someone else gave to start turning their attitude around.
If you are a presenter that tends to roam around the audience, you can walk over and stand by the negative person. This often gets them to change their behavior because they become uncomfortable having everyone’s eyes on them.
In worst case scenarios, you may have to ask the negative person to leave. In my over fifteen years of speaking, I have only had to do this once, with two individuals from one company. Ironically, the company had hired me to help them improve the morale of workers and their interaction with leaders. Two of the individuals did not want to be there. One sat slumped in his seat while the other one sat with his back to the room and stared out the window. At one point, the question was asked, “How should I handle it when a customer asks me to work on a project but they haven’t gone through the proper channels to get a number assigned to the project? And a number needs to be assigned to the project in order for us to properly track time and pay.” Mr. Negative turned around from staring out the window and said, “This is just a bunch of bull____. I just tell the customer we can’t do that and I hang up on them.”
At this point, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. And all eyes moved to me to see how I would respond to the situation. I knew, because of the topic we were covering, that my primary goal as presenter was to make the room safe for people to ask difficult questions. And Mr. Negative had just killed that safe environment.
So, I used Outcome Thinking® to address with the group what we were trying to accomplish and how they needed to act in order for us to achieve that. I then gave them the option to stay or leave, but if they stayed they were agreeing to participate positively.
Then I gave the group a fifteen-minute break so they could choose whether they wanted to stay or leave. At this point I had only been speaking for about forty minutes, so we were not really at a point in a full-day session where you would normally take a break.
Ironically though, every single person came back, and the two negative people sat up front and participated. The feedback forms that came back to me repeatedly said, “Thanks for making it a safe environment to talk.”