For a long time I had a board member who was very negative. I can’t overstate how negative he was. Whenever we would talk, he was aggressively critical, angry, frustrated. It got harder and harder for me to be around him, and it seemed that he picked up on this. He responded by being even more negative, demanding more time, and for me to reciprocate positivity to his anger and belligerence. What was frustrating for me was that so much of what he was saying wasn’t true. Some of it was, as he was tapped into a few other of the board members. However, he wasn’t tapped into many of them, who didn’t make time for him – really for the same reasons that I didn’t. Over time, he grew more and more isolated. Throughout the whole time he was on our board, he would use triangulation (“I just talked to ___ and he is super angry with you, too”), gossip (“I heard that ___ is thinking about quitting, I’d love to get together with him and hear about that”), all-or-nothing language (“everyone is extremely frustrated about the last meeting”), and then some of the more overt power-plays, lying, attempted text-fights, yelling profanity and insults, and backstabbing. It was pretty ridiculous.
Here are some of my takeaways from my relationship with this person, and many more like him.
- Critical people are often internally critical of themselves. What I found out over time in this case and others is that they were responding to their own thought patterns. First, everyone is frustrating with them, or they are otherwise insecure about their own performance. Out of self-preservation, they project. They blast everyone with they same criticism they hear in their own head.
- Unhappy people make other people unhappy. Or, “misery loves company.” There are endless reasons why people are unhappy. Chemical reasons, marriage and family, circumstance, job or career troubles, they are over-burdened and over-committed. It could be anything. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunately common, especially for people in positions of influence to make others feel how they feel. Leaders and influencers have the position and ability to set the tone. Unhappy people will set an unhappy tone.
- There’s a way out. It can be done gracefully, harshly, or otherwise. Naming reality (this isn’t working) and then naming the solution (something has to change) is like walking a tight-rope, especially when it comes to communities of relationship and helping systems. Churches, businesses, families, teams, all of these are relational communities. The way out is almost always through. Go through the conflict, walk through the unhappiness, look the person in the eye and do the unthinkable.
Do you have the time, energy, and relational / emotional resources to engage with a miserable person on a deep level? You probably don’t, which is sort of a catch-22. You are drained of energy by being with a negative, vindictive person, and it takes that much more energy to gracefully set up boundaries, or help them move on, or move out. What if they are in authority over you? What if you are stuck with them? Meaning, there’s no end-date, no pre-determined time where the commitment will end. What if it’s a marriage? Or a business partnership that is not so easily separated.
What I’m suggesting about empathy is this. Rather than giving an equal reaction to a person (eg. negativity for negativity) you respond with grace and love. Take a second, maybe a full minute before you engage. Talk to yourself about who you are, re-affirm your own attitude about yourself. Start with, “this isn’t about me.” It probably isn’t. Give space for the other to be heard. Some grace might break the spell right away. I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as there is often a spiritual issue at work. It might break the spell a lifetime later. The person might never get it. What I’m proposing is that you respond with grace and kindness to an angry, critical, negative person. Understand, if possible, where their criticism is coming from. In my case, I found that the person was ripping themselves apart as much as they were ripping me apart. They felt like everyone was against them, so everyone who would listen to them heard a projection of that reality in their conversation, “everyone is against you.” The way that he was making me feel was how he felt himself so much of the time. When I came to understand that, it made it easier for me to point him to something else. Our relationship still hit the rocks and effectively ended, but we didn’t go to war. We are good now.
Instead of responding to “everyone is super frustrated” with defensiveness (“who feels that way? surely not everyone feels that way”), respond with an attempt to understand. “How do you feel about the situation? It sounds like you might be frustrated.” Instead of responding to an ultimatum with a brash directive, again I suggest you listen and try to understand. What brought about the idea that there are only these options? What made this person feel so trapped? Is this a power play, desperation, a lack of other options, or something else?
Can you respond with peace and kindness to the opposite? I invite you to try.