Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What to Do About Negative Conversations

How to make a negative conversation into something positive.

People are cynical--why wouldn't they be? They are overworked, bossed around, paying more, owning less, losing dreams and struggling with hope. Houses are still foreclosing. Two of my friends were laid off this month.

These dark clouds seem to consume all the conversations with my friends. Is talking about this useful? It can be, if you have the courage to be optimistic in the eye of the storm.

There was a landmark UCLA study¹ where the researchers found that the hormone oxytocin released when women talk about their worries with each other tends to counteract the stress that would otherwise swallow them up. The female reactions to stress include "fight, flight and friend."

"There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded," says Dr. Klein, one of chief researchers in the study. "When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own."

 Women don't necessarily worry more then men. We verbalize it more.

Yet there is a way to keep the balance tipped toward a positive point of view. There is a benefit to expressing worries, disappointment and resentment. Then it's good to shift from dark to light.

Here are some tips for listening with empathy and then boldly shifting the energy of the conversation:

1: Discover if there are any real threats in the moment. Listen with sincerity to your friend. Try to determine if there anything at stake right now, really. What can harm you or your friend? How likely is that to happen? You don't want to sound like you are belittling a real problem. Ask your friend if she needs help finding a solution.

2. Find signs of hope and possibility. If there is no imminent threat, find one thing to be grateful for and optimistic about. If your friend can't find a glimmer of hope, share your own.

"...the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. " ~ words from the character Hallie in Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I love the concept of "living in your hope" instead of holding it out for "someday." Some people are even afraid to hope so they won't face disappointment or rejection. Focusing on what is good in your life right now and what good could possibly happen in the future won't stop bad things from happening but it can make you happier and healthier in the moment. Help your friend have the courage to be optimistic by sharing your own hopes and asking her to find at least one of her own.

And when you talk about what you are hopeful for, don't just focus on what you hope other people will do. You have to act as if everything will turn out well. You have to "live inside your hope."

3. Shift your mindset by starting your day with a curious eye, looking for good news to share. Take the risk to start a new conversation something good that is happening now. Share a story that inspires belief in the power of the human spirit to triumph. Over time, sharing good news will become as natural as talking about what is terrible in our lives.

Have you heard of ODE, the online community for intelligent optimists? Whether or not you subscribe to their magazine, click on Good News to sign up to receive three stories of something good in the news emailed to you every day.

Change happens by conversations. Margaret Wheatley said in her book Turning to One Another, "Change begins...when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible...Together we will figure out what our first step is, then the next, then the next. Gradually, we become large and powerful. We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

Let your friends worry, but not for long. Have the gumption to take the conversation out of the mud into the lightness of possibility.

¹ Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). "Female Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight" Psychological Review, 107(3),41-429.

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD is a sought-after keynote speaker, coach, and author of Wander Woman and Outsmart Your Brain. You can read more about Dr. Reynolds at