Pessimism is the tendency to focus on the negative aspects of life or to expect the worst possible outcome. Talking with a pessimist can be a real challenge. Not only does she have arguments to counter everything you say, but she leaves you feeling hopeless; her negativity seems to be contagious. You want to be a good friend, but sometimes communicating with her is hard work. However, there are specific strategies you can adopt that will make the communication easier.
Understand and listen. Paraphrase the pessimist's concerns back to him to confirm that you are getting his message. This will take some patience. Pessimists are used to people dismissing or ignoring their negative remarks, so if the pessimist comprehends that you really are paying attention to what he is saying, you have already put yourself into a different category. You have established yourself as someone who cares about him.
Avoid putting an overly positive spin on the facts. Many people naturally respond to a pessimist's unwarranted negativity by trying to bring balance, and they end up overdoing their optimism.This will not bring balance to the pessimist's way of thinking, but will lower your credibility in her eyes.
Acknowledge it when the pessimist makes a genuine contribution. Sometimes pessimists point out problems that optimists want to ignore. Because your pessimistic friend tends to worry about negative outcomes, he may be good at laying his finger precisely on a weakness in a plan. For example, if your pessimistic friend says, "You're going to have a flat tire soon," and you check the air in your tires and discover they are low, go back to the pessimist to thank him for preventing a dangerous blow out.
Encourage the pessimist to do what she can to effect positive change. Pessimists make negative predictions such as "Things will always be this bad." However, it's unlikely that she wants her prediction to come true, and so she may be open to you encouraging her to imagine a positive outcome.
Ask him to be specific. For example, if he is job hunting and states, "I looked everywhere, and there were absolutely no jobs available," ask him to tell you exactly where he looked. You may learn that he only checked one career site, creating the opening for you to gently suggest that he try a few more sites. Ask him also what he is qualified for. Pessimists tend to understate their skills, so you may be pleasantly surprised by how much he has to offer an employer.
Give your pessimistic friend gentle but authentic feedback about the effect that her negativity has on you and, if you have observed it, on others. Some pessimists are not aware that the way they communicate is sometimes heard as judgmental nay-saying. Take your courage in your hands and say something like, "Jane, when you predict a negative outcome so often, it really drags me down." Many pessimists honestly do not know how others see them.
Encourage your pessimistic friend to make changes in his language. Invite him to drop the words "never" and "always" from his speech, as these are words he uses to generalize from one unwanted situation to make negative predictions about his whole future. Ask him to add a "but" clause to his negative statements, such as "I just cannot find a job, but I am determined to keep looking."
Accept that, while you can influence and support your pessimistic friend, you cannot force her to change her thinking. She has learned over a period of time to be pessimistic, and she will not relinquish this style instantly just because you want to help her be more optimistic.
Model realistic, positive and hopeful behavior and encourage others in the pessimist's life to do so as well. For example, if you experience a setback in your own life, discuss it openly with the pessimist and describe how you plan to recover and avoid such a setback in future. Focus on what you have learned from the setback rather than on how unfair it was.
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- Gentle humor can sometimes be effective, but you must be cautious, as no one likes to be mocked for the way she looks at life.
- Do not let yourself get dragged down. You can listen and understand the pessimist without agreeing with his world view.
- Constructive criticism is not the same as pessimism. An effective critic may point out something that is wrong, but assumes that change and improvement are possible. A pessimist always assumes things will be this bad.
- While not all pessimism is a sign of serious depression, it may be. If your pessimistic friend shows other signs of depression, such as talking about suicide, not taking care of himself, sleeplessness or apathy, it may be time to encourage him to seek medical help.
- If your friend cycles back and forth between extreme pessimism and unrealistic optimism, this may also indicate that professional help is needed.
Gale Macaulay-Newcombe has been writing professionally since 1988 and was first published in 2004 in "The Standards for Certification" of the Canadian Association for Pastoral Practice and Education. A certified teaching supervisor (retired), Macaulay-Newcombe holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Guelph and a Master of Divinity from McMaster University.