Helping Someone Who is Overly Negative

How can we help someone go from complaining to actually helping resolve their conflict?

Ben Jackson Coaching | Helping Someone Who's Overly Negative | @benjacksoncoach

Ignore someone who’s negative a lot might be easier said than done. How do we help someone go from negative to resolving their conflict?

I’m sure there’s plenty of examples you can come up with people who are negative. Their first response is to catastrophise when hit by setbacks or challenges. Perhaps this is a family member, your partner or someone in your community.

The goal is to, in a compassionate and understanding way, challenge the negativity in a way that helps them understand what is at the heart of their issue; allowing them full ownership and importantly free from any imposition by you.

We achieve this by asking, ‘And?’, or more complete sentence: ‘What does this mean to you?’.

Asking A Better Question

With these questions we are looking for the core reason that so often gives us pain (the reality behind the negative response) : the meaning we’re giving something (click here to watch my video on this). We combine that also with another important approach which is to get specific about the issue or challenge (click here for the video I did).

Getting to the detail of the problem often does two things: it reduces the problem to a manageable or actionable chunk; and it drastically reduces the emotional balloon that inflates the issue.


What you’ll achieve is to un-peel the layers and get to the meaning they are giving the situation or problem they complain about.

In addition to the two approaches above, you will also gain two further useful things:

  • You are enabling the person to look inside themselves and reflect on what’s causing their feelings
  • It allows you to step away from placating, resolving or even dismissing the complaint and focuses it solely on them. A useful position to maintain so we don’t get drawn into their feelings

See Also: The Power of Reframing Your Thoughts and Feelings

Putting It In To Practice

If we put these approaches together you may have a talk that goes something like this:

A friend comes to you saying she’s worried about her daughter and who she’s dating. If we ask “And?” their response may be: “Oh, well, I don’t know who he is. And, well, I don’t know who he is so I don’t know if he’s a nice person.”

“And what does that mean?”

“If I don’t know if he’s a nice person, I don’t know if he’s going to be nice to her”.

“So you want to make sure the person that she’s seeing is a nice person and she’s happy?”

“Well, yes obviously.”

As simple as this scenario is, you can understand how repeating that question begins to unpack what’s actually really going on. Often we can get stuck in our first statement and not take the time to explore what’s really driving the complaining.

We’ve got a parent who is concerned about who their daughter is seeing. Yet using only two or three questions it’s clearer that they want to know their daughter is taken care of. At this point it may be enough for the person to realise what’s bothering her and come up with solutions. Remember, awareness can be one of the biggest steps to change. At the very least, they are in a more useful place to come up with some solutions.

It may be that you’ve not connected to the emotional core of the issue, in this case her daughter and her partner, and it may be worthwhile peeling a further layer away.

You can do this by asking, “What does her happiness mean to you?”. Perhaps she’ll say that it means she’s been a good parent. At this point you may sense that this is the real heart of the issue as it connects the previous statements. You could at this point ask her to reflect whether she thinks she’s been a good parent.

Steps Forward

Used effectively it’s a really fascinating and helpful tool. It can fit in subtly with normal conversation. Essentially what we’re doing is helping a person really identify what’s specifically getting to them and dilute their negativity. At this point, as they get to the root issue, often the person will succeed in identifying what they need to go and do. Which is why self-awareness is so important; it can organically create improved responses and solutions.

I hope you can see how quickly we can help someone. It’s uncomplicated and fits in to normal conversation relatively easily, and ultimately helps them get to where they want to be.

How It Can Benefit You

It’s worth adding that by using these approaches or questions (which is all they are really), we gain a valuable benefit. How do you feel after? How often do you feel tired or emotionally drained listening to someone complain? I would guess it’s quite frequently. However by trying the questions you’ll soon notice that it is the other person doing all the work. You are pulled less emotionally into the negative mindset and free yourself from that engagement which leaves you exhausted.

In fact I’d hope you could both feel the benefits of this type of interaction or exchange. Why not apply this to yourself next time you hear yourself complaining? Apply the steps above and see what really is causing you to complain. What is behind the issue? What is the meaning you’re giving something; and ultimately what do you have to address specifically to have it resolved.

Let me know what you think down in the comments; I love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading

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About the Author

Ben Jackson is a registered counsellor, coach, and lecturer with nearly 10 years of professional experience. He helps clients with stress and anxiety, anger management, self esteem, confidence, and depression.

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