Everybody has an opinion. In a tolerant, empathetic, and intelligent world, differing opinions shouldn’t be a problem. On the contrary, they would enrich us. However, in a world where people are often too busy, angry and or frustrated, opinions become a source of conflict and negative comments take the place of constructive criticism.
Negative comments become daily bread, they are present in our day to day and swarm on social networks. They can come from both close people and complete strangers. They can turn out to be completely out of place comments or hurtful criticisms.
Highly sensitive persons, those who take things too seriously, or those who have difficulty controlling their first impulses can be carried away by the emotional impact that negative comments generate. In those cases, learning how to respond to a negative comment without losing your calm becomes a survival skill.
Avoiding emotional contagion
Emotions are contagious and negative emotions like anger or sadness are even more contagious. Rudeness in treatment, roughness and arrogance are also contagious. A study conducted at the University of Florida revealed that when we witness or are the object of a rude episode, the chances that we will behave in a disrespectful way towards others increase.
“Low intensity negative behaviors like rudeness can be contagious. This effect can be produced based on unique episodes, anyone can be a carrier of these emotions and, of course, this contagion has consequences for the people with whom we interact in the future”, the psychologists concluded.
Other research at Georgetown University revealed that particularly nasty negative comments also end up affecting our performance. People who were exposed to hostile situations noticed a decrease in their performance in everyday tasks and those that were creative.
The explanation is simple: when we are treated badly or unfairly, our emotional brain takes over and prevents us from thinking clearly. We can become obsessed with what happened and turn it over in our heads, which takes away cognitive resources that we could allocate to other much more relevant and satisfying tasks.
Therefore, the golden rule for responding to a negative comment is to avoid emotional contagion. If the other persons infects you with their anger or frustration, they have brought you to their playing field. One way to avoid contagion is to pause and breathe before responding. We must take a few seconds to stop the first impulse. It’s about learning to act instead of just reacting.
When we react, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the opinions and emotions of our interlocutor. When we decide how to act, we remain in control. A simple technique to assume a psychological distance from what is happening is to try to discover the emotions that our interlocutor is expressing.This psychological exercise, which we must carry out from curiosity, will turn us into an external observer and help us to remain calm.
To answer or not to answer? That is the question
The question is not always “how do I respond to negative comments?” but “should I respond to all negative comments?
The short answer is No.
There are comments that are not worth the emotional effort, cognitive work, or time involved in responding. When the other person does not want to dialogue but simply to criticize or impose his opinion, it is not worth responding to his comments.
Neither is it worth responding to negative comments if we don’t want to invest in that relationship. Finally, answering involves a dialogue, and there may be times when we are not interested in having a conversation that will get nowhere.
The idea is that we ask ourselves if it is really worth sacrificing a little of our inner peace to fight that battle. There will be times when it is worth it, other times not. After all, it is wise to know which battles are worthwhile and which are not.
Sometime, the best way to respond to negative comments is to indicate our limits making it clear that we will not allow them to violate our assertive rights or treat us badly. An example of a response to a negative comment is: “You are raising your voice, insulting and criticizing me and I am not willing to be treated that way”.
We can also respond in a more subtle way, with a question that changes the dynamics and forces the other person to rethink what he said and its consequences. We can respond with a question that highlights the absurdity, maliciousness, or tactlessness of his words. For example, some responses to negative comments in the form of a question could be: Have you noticed that your words hurt me? o Do you understand that you cannot criticize what you do not know?
Foulk, T. et. Al. (2016) Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors. J Appl Psychol; 101(1):50-67.
Porath, C. L. & Erez, A. (2009) Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes; 109(1), 29–44.