Reacting to Negativity in a Business Setting

Over the decades I've met and/or worked with a lot of business owners, founders, managers, partners, and leaders. And I've seen all sorts of personality types. Or combinations within teams and companies that play off each other.

I'm that guy that is sometimes more interested in how people are acting than what they are actually saying. I try to read body language or how people react to a situation — it says a lot. We all do that on some level. It is a normal part of human communication.. but I feel like I pay a lot of attention to it.

It's just interesting to me. I think about it a lot. Especially in the context of people that are running businesses. I'm always taking mental notes and gauging how people ‘are'. And it helps me tune the best way to engage and communicate with each unique individual.

The best people I've worked with have a good attitude, are pleasant to work with, and truly have a passion for their mission. But sometimes, that can go off the rails.

Falling Off the Positivity Wagon – It Happens

It happens. Working together inside a business can be stressful. A lot can be at stake so people can find themselves in a bad place from time to time.

I recall a few years ago being in a meeting that became a little heated for a second or had the potential to go in a bad direction. I had chuckled at something and someone in the meeting didn't think I was taking things seriously enough. I only came back with silence. I literally didn't say a word in response; I didn't acknowledge what they said. I just let them sit in their words.

And doing that.. there was an awkward silence for about 5-10 seconds and then we just went back to discussing the problems we were working on in the business.

At that moment I had a ‘read' on the situation. I realized I was the only one having fun solving the problem; I enjoyed this process. There were a couple of things at play.

  1. They had a much greater stake in the outcome than I did. They were risking a lot more than I was; most importantly THEIR money.
  2. They had less experience in this domain (it was related to advertising.. which I have a background in). I was engaged with the process and problem solving.. I was challenged by it and the challenge was fun to me. What we were doing I had done many, many of times before so I knew we were just in the challenging phase of the project. So I had a different game face and attitude.
  3. There were time constraints.. we needed time. They didn't have patience.

Your Personality is a Factor

But my personality .. I don't know if it's sometimes a nervous laugh or a laugh just designed to break up a serious situation, relieve the stress of the moment.. It's just my core. It's who I am and how I respond. I laugh a lot.

Maybe it could be traced back to my childhood and coping with bullies and/or learning that laughing can diffuse uncomfortable situations.

I realize though, depending on the ‘personality, it can be interpreted differently.

BUT that chuckle didn't mean I wasn't taking it seriously. I was just engaged and listening at that moment. And trying to keep the conversation focused on the solution; rather than having it get emotional. I was probably subconsciously trying to bring the temperature down a bit.

But that ‘leader' .. maybe it was a tactic. Maybe there was a strategy behind it to make sure I was falling in line and taking things seriously. They could have conceivably even had a game plan going into the meeting. But maybe they just had a moment where they, themselves, weren't having fun in the process. 😉

How You React

You choose that. Maybe you've heard that before.. I think there's a popular quote or saying out there about it's not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens. It's true!

At that moment, by identifying and putting the focus on my chuckle, it took the focus off the problem at hand, made me feel bad.. now I have bad feelings about the situation. My emotions, even though I controlled them, were boiling underneath.

Just the fact that I'm thinking more about that 2-second interaction rather than the actual problem at hand now, is not a good outcome.

For me, how I reacted was to not engage. First, I knew who my adversary was; their position and authority in the company made this a bad road to go down. Second, it wasn't going to help if I reacted in a negative way.

Keeping Our Cool, Context & Measuring the People in the Room

Now the above story is negative and specific to that moment. But I guarantee this person was not having ‘fun'. This wasn't a ‘fun' thing for them.

First, my opinion is I don't think it should ever have gone there. But they obviously didn't understand my nature.

Second, I learned a lesson. And after interactions like this, I do look inward.

What lessons can I take away? How am I at fault and what can I learn from it?

I'd like to say I try to keep those chuckles in check more these days. Especially when problem-solving with a client or whatever. I'm always trying to measure the people I'm talking to and what type of conversation we need to have.. lighter, heavier? What are their personalities?

If I'm lucky, I'm in a room of people that also chuckle and are having fun problem-solving.

If not, we adjust.


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Matt Levenhagen

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