How to Engage with a Critical & Negative Person

Feb 24, 2021
How to Engage with a Critical & Negative Person? Conversations Worth Having

Monday Kickstarters is a working session designed for everyone on the call to figure out how to have conversations worth having when faced with a tough situation or problem. The process is based upon the book, Conversations Worth Having.  You can listen live to this session on Vimeo.

Monday, February 22, 2021 we discussed one topic in two productive ways: What do you do with the team members who’s always negative or critical?

The Critical, Negative Team Member

Rather than reframing this conversation immediately, we explored a one-on-one conversation with the person, starting from a place of curiosity about what we didn’t know. The idea was to ask generative questions that would make the invisible visible and help create shared understanding.  As we talked, we realized there was also an important team conversation that would be beneficial.

There were great recommendations for generative questions to start off the conversation. A number of valuable insights and suggestions from the group:

  • Check your question to make sure you’re not making an assumption in your question. If there is an implied assumption, ask the question to make sure your assumption is correct. For example, “What can we do to make you feel more like a member of the team” begins with the assumptions that (1) the person wants to be part of the team and (2) they don’t already feel a part of the team. This is a valuable conversation to be in, simply begin with “Do you see yourself as part of the team?” (Be cautious about using ‘feel’ as you risk not speaking the language of ‘thinkers, and vice versa.). Once they say, “No and I’d really like to be,” then the question is an exceptional one! And, be prepared for, “No and I don’t really care to be.” Then you’re in another conversation.
  • Addressing the critical or negative nature of the comments may be important, especially if they are having a detrimental effect on the team. Be careful not to present the question in a way that makes them defensive, like, “I’ve noticed the way people respond when you are critical.” Instead ask, “Have you noticed the effect your comments have on the team?”
  • One underlying assumption here is that the person sees their comments as negative, which may not be the case. They may see themselves as realistic, rational, and of significant importance for the benefit of the team or organization. Edward DeBono’s Six Hats Thinking is a valuable resource for this reason (and more). He names six kinds of thinking and encourages teams to think in parallel instead of at cross-purposes. It is an exercise in frustration when some members are thinking creatively, some thinking about risks and what could go wrong, and some finding reasons why ideas won’t work. DeBono suggests teams intentionally all think in parallel, making room for different ways of thinking about ideas, projects, and proposals at different points of time.

For the team conversation, a positive frame would be important. Based upon our conversation, the positive frame might be: Building cohesion and maximizing individual strengths.  The generative questions people talked about for the team included:

  • What group norms will help us have highly effective meetings?
  • When have we been at our best as a team?
  • How might identifying, learning about, and using one another’s strengths help us excel?
  • When is it valuable for us to dialogue (listen to understand one another) and when is it important for us to discuss (evaluate and make decisions)?
  • How might we practice thinking in parallel (using Edward DeBono’s Six Hats Thinking)?

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