Nothing is more of a drain then being around someone who complains all the time and always has something negative to say. If you are lucky, you can walk away or limit your contact with those people, but if that Negative Nelly is someone in your closer circles like a co-worker or member of your family, it might be hard to keep your distance. In those situations, it is helpful if you have a few tools for not only how to shield yourself from their negative energy but how to actually turn their negative thinking in a more positive direction. One of the most effective ways to influence someone else’s thinking is to re-direct their attention in a subtle way.
What anyone thinks about and talks about is a function of what they are paying attention to. There are only two categories of things in life that you can pay attention to that cause you to experience emotion: Things you want and things you don’t want. Every single thing that you can think of that causes any type of significant emotion can be sorted into one of those two categories. Breakups, job loss, betrayal, the death of a loved one—all things you don’t want. Pets, best friends, birthday parties, getting a raise—all things you do want.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, people who talk about negative things all the time focus their attention on things in their life they are unhappy with and don’t like. What they don’t realize is that attention works on what is referred to as an activation/inhibition model, meaning, when you give attention to negative things, it literally inhibits your ability to see positive things and vice versa.1 This means people who spend a significant amount of time focused on the unwanted things in life get stuck on a track of negativity that is very hard to shift because their brain is filtering out the positive.
This is lousy for them, but if you have to be around them for any length of time, then it is also lousy for you. The good news is that attention isn’t fixed and the positive emotional benefit someone experiences when they focus on more wanted aspects of their life, is almost immediate. Sometimes what they need is a little help from you to break the cycle and help them make the shift. All you have to do to get someone to talk about something positive is to direct their attention to something they do want.
When someone’s brain is stuck on a negative track and you try to redirect their attention, here’s what will happen:
Initially, they will not be able to think of something positive, they may give you a blank stare and/or they will likely jump right back to their negative stream of thinking.
Friend: I am sick of the way my husband treats me, he is never nice.
You: It sounds like you are really annoyed. There must be sometimes when he is nice though?
Friend: Not really. Lately, all he does is nag at me.
Don’t give up here. It can take a few tries to redirect someone’s attention to something wanted in their life but once they accomplish this, there will be an emotional shift even if it is brief. It may help to offer a suggestion.
You: What about last weekend when he surprised you and took you to dinner?
Friend: Yeah, that was nice (momentary attention shift to wanted)…but it doesn’t really make up for the other stuff (back to the unwanted).
If the topic they are on is too toxic altogether, it may help to change the subject entirely.
You: Relationships can have their ups and downs, let’s plan a fun girl’s trip to get away. Where should we go?
Friend: I definitely need a spa day. A massage would feel really good. I’m glad to have such a supportive friend.
As you encourage someone to direct their attention to more wanted aspects of their life, notice the change in their facial expressions and body language. When people start to talk about positive events that feel good, they start to smile; it is an almost involuntary reaction. They will feel better and so will you.
1. Pribram, K.H. and D. McGuinness, Arousal, activation, and effort in the control of attention. Psychol Rev, 1975. 82(2): p. 116-49.