Mindful Ways To Interact With Negative People
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” - Nelson Mandela
On the path to living mindfully and gaining self-awareness, one of the most challenging aspects can be dealing with difficult people. Unfortunately, soul crushing folks who enjoy feather ruffling are unavoidable. The upside is, these Danny Downers and Gloomy Gertrudes usually come along with meaningful lessons, disguised as prickly obstacles. Not surprisingly, those who get under your skin the most, often reflect parts of your shadow-self that you'd otherwise rather ignore.
So how should you react when a person criticizes you and isn’t coming from a helpful place? Even if it's buried beneath subtext, when someone targets you, it’s natural to feel the sting. It's natural to try to match their energy and become defensive. So you may find yourself getting angry or shutting down. According to Relationship and Intimacy Expert, Dr. Alexandra Stockwell, author of “Uncompromising Intimacy,” after hearing the negative remark, before speaking, “The first step is to be aware of how you feel. Are you offended? Insulted? Angry? Sad? Righteous? Numb? Notice how you feel and if you have a strong response, then you are taking the comment personally.”
Sure, not taking things “personally,” sounds like a great idea in theory. But it's far from easy. Dr Stockwell says, “The important thing is to respond in a way that honors you, rather than focusing on putting down the speaker.” So resist the urge to lash out. Dr. Stockwell uses the example, “if someone says something critically, you can say you are open to feedback when it is delivered with love.” Although that's something worth trying with a close friend or intimate partner, it's not the best idea if you don't know the person well. In that case, Dr. Stockwell says, “You can just put your attention elsewhere.” Another option is to “tell the person you are happy to discuss it when she is more open to communicate with kindness,” says Dr. Stockwell.
Take time to pause and breathe; try to not become immediately engaged. This way you won't find yourself reacting defensively. And remember, Dr. Stockwell says,“anyone who is critical without kindness is that way because of how they are and not because of how you are.”
So give yourself time to gain perspective. Dr. Stockwell suggests, “Once you approach the situation objectively, you can choose your response. Maybe you walk away with grace. Maybe you speak in a low, precise tone and say that you will not tolerate being spoken to that way. Maybe you request the person says the same thing if it’s important to them but in a way that is easier to hear.” Detaching gives you the freedom and clearheadedness to react in a way that best serves you.
Various challenges arise when talking to negative people. Usually, the give and take doesn't occur naturally. Short of walking away, how can you communicate with a person who doesn't appear to listen? Dr. Stockwell says, “One of the best options is humor: start talking about random things like purple elephants flying in Tahiti. This will get the person’s attention and you can then say you were just checking if he was listening.” If you'd prefer a more direct approach, Dr. Stockwell suggests saying, “this is really important to me. Are you available to give me your full attention?”
Also, your tone is crucial. Dr. Stockwell says, “The key is to say this calmly, without blame and resentment. If you say it with frustration, you are not likely to get what you want.”
Unfortunately, the old cliché “misery loves company” can often hold true... So what should do you if someone you care about complains in a negative spiral? How do you avoid getting swept up in a dismal vortex? First, says Dr. Stockwell, “be clear about what kind of communication you are available for. If you are not available for complaining, change the topic.” But be mindful not to dive into talking about yourself because that's not usually a good idea; according to Dr. Stockwell, “People who are complaining yearn to be seen and heard. So give that to them by asking a question about something positive—perhaps ask about work, children, their pet, or where they would like to go on vacation.”
Especially in today’s times, opposing viewpoints are a slippery slope. Instead of celebrating our differences, they can result in further divisiveness. So how can you clash with a person who has conflicting core values without dismissing them? Dr. Stockwell suggests finding common ground, “Be curious. You can ask questions about their views, values, and beliefs and in no way agree with them.” Release judgment. Instead, seek to sincerely learn their thought process. “Don’t share your view unless requested. This is not a tit-for-tat conversation—it will have the best outcome if you ask questions and listen to the answers. Then, when the other person is ready, she can ask you questions too—don’t try to rush it,” advises Dr. Stockwell.
Alternatively, you can stand your ground without engaging by “saying you disagree and would love to connect while sticking to other topics because the friendship is really important to you,” says Dr. Stockwell. Keep in mind, before trying this approach, lead with the positive, and mention what brings you together.
One of the biggest challenges when dealing with difficult people, according to licensed psychotherapist, Yoga teacher, and author of “Awakening from Anxiety,” Rev. Connie Habash, is “not getting caught up in your thoughts about them. When you believe the thoughts that they’re difficult, annoying, mean, or any other negative thought, it sets you up to become reactive. Then, you naturally put up defenses.” So ground yourself in the moment, and try to experience the person anew.
Connie suggests doing this mindfulness exercise to gain objectivity: “check in with your physical sensations. Is there a knot in the stomach, or heat rising through your face? Whatever you are experiencing, try to distinguish if those physical sensations are in response to what is happening right now, or if they are reactions to thoughts you have about a previous encounter. Let those thoughts go, and breathe into the sensations.” How can this help? According to Connie, the thoughts, “will ease up when you focus on this moment, and let go of ruminations over the past.”
Here’s another exercise from Connie. This one is for self-protection against negative energy. Connie says, “Imagine that you have an energy bubble around you – a clear boundary between you and the other person. Visualize their energy either bouncing back to them, or flowing around your energetic edge. Try to feel your own energy and space within the bubble, and claim that as belonging only to you. Their energy isn’t permitted inside.”
Just as darkness and light exist simultaneously, nobody is positive all the time. So what's the most mindful way to release your own negative vibes? Connie suggests during these moments, “Turn your attention to your breath. As you inhale, picture golden white light entering your body – the life force, or prana, as it is called in yoga. On your exhalation, visualize grey smoke exiting your nostrils. It may even be black if you’re really angry or upset. Continue this practice until your body feels full of light, and your exhalations become clear. It may take several minutes.”
Additionally, according to Connie, “If you have time and a safe space, dance out your negative energy. It helps to have fun – pleasure disrupts negativity. Moving the energy in a physical way can create a powerful shift.”
Perhaps one of the reasons it's so tough to deal with difficult people is because it's natural to want to change their POVs. And the pushback can be exhausting. People develop coping mechanisms over a lifetime. So it's unrealistic to think one conversation can transform them. And yet subtle shifts are possible when a true give and take occurs. Sometimes practicing compassion is the best course of action: toward the person you’re interacting with, and also yourself. Other times, you may consciously choose to remove toxic people from your life. And if you do so, honor your feelings and stick to your decision. Depending on the relationship and situation, ultimately, dealing with conflict can serve as yet another opportunity for self-growth and awareness.