How to stay positive around negative people?

A reader wrote in explaining a difficult interaction with some relatives, where a great moment was ruined by a very negative comment, which led to their question:

“My question is, how to stay positive in a negative, toxic environment? My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. There are many people like this around us.”

Many years ago my wife and I had a consultation with a very old and very highly respected buddhist nun called Sister Chân Không. We asked her what to do about some relatives who were causing us quite a lot of suffering at the time. Without skipping a beat, she gave us her answer: “Short, positive contact”.

It’s become a mantra for us where difficult people are concerned ever since: Short Positive Contact! There may be people that we just can’t avoid seeing in our lives, but who make our lives difficult. The only answer is to keep meetings few and far between, brief, and as much as possible, positive.

How to make them positive? Sometimes this might mean we feel more comfortable meeting in a restaurant than in one of our homes, where the meal gives a fixed beginning and end to the amount of time we’ll spend together, and being in public tends to encourage better behaviour!

Sometimes it might mean just bringing these people to our own house, and not going to their’s, so we feel more solid on home ground. It may mean planning a specific activity that seems to keep things in balance. The point is to feel as comfortable as possible with the plan to begin with.

As the reader says, “My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. ” Quite right! Not engaging in the negativity is a very good plan. As is excusing oneself and walking away from a difficult conversation, or changing the subject whenever tricky topics come up.

I had a relative-in-law who was quite a hypochondriac, and hated any conversation about ill health. Whenever this topic came up, he’d immediately say, “So what’s going on in the football these days?” cleverly changing the subject. The Spanish call this tener mano izquierda – ‘to have left hand’. With this trick he escaped many a conversation that was toxic for him.

Of course, wherever possible it’s best to keep very negative people out of our lives altogether, and surround ourselves with positive people. When we can’t, as well as the above strategies, there are two more things that can help a lot.

Firstly, to make sure we are bolstered with as much of our own inner-positivity as possible. It’s like dealing with air pollution in the city – the healthier we are, the more walks in the fresh-air of the countryside we take regularly, the better our bodies deal with bad-air days. The more we find the best ways to keep ourselves happy and positive, and look after our own inner-lives, the better we can deal with difficult-people days.

Secondly, there is empathy. Why is this difficult person so difficult? What has happened in their lives to make them like this? What fundamental life-need are they lacking that is making them so unhappy and hard to be with? Very few people are naturally toxic or negative, something has made them that way.

If we can stand for a moment in their shoes, or look at where they have come from, or what they are lacking, and get even a tiny idea of the suffering in their lives, it can make the situation much easier for us if we need to spend time with them. This deep looking and understanding has made a big difference to my relationship with some people in my life, but it can also help us not to be too affected by the angry driver in the car behind, or the grumpy waiter or waitress in a restaurant – something’s up with them that we can’t see.

So, empathy, empathy, empathy, and if total avoidance isn’t an option: Short Positive Contact. As short and as positive as can be.


If you have a question related to the kind of topic found on this blog – awakening, art, creativity, life! –  that you would be happy for me to answer as a blog post, please send it to me via the contact page. Q and A’s help me to understand what I read, see, and appreciate. Comments are welcome via the same contact page. Thank you.