Tom Esch specializes in helping organizations improve outcomes with better interpersonal relations. In this sample clip from his presentation, Managing Difficult People, he talks about how to deal with negativity and blaming.


Okay, people with negative personalities. These are people always seeing the bad, it’s the Debbie Downer, the Donald Downer, there’s the glass half empty. And these people tend to move quickly from facts to interpretations, to reactions, to ends quickly. They move along that continuum very quickly. This is from the Mark Murphy book where they’re interpreting. They’re really big on interpreting and they interpret it negative. And they’ve got a mindset that’s negative and they react negatively. They tend to use words like always, never, totally, no one, everyone. The dramatics also use words like that, but the negatives put the negative spin on that, which makes it even less pleasant. They might say, “Change or fill in the blank always fails here or never works here. No one’s ever going to keep an appointment with me. I’m always getting forgotten. Nobody values me ever.” Things like that.

And these people lower morale. They really lower the morale, if they have any impact or influence at all. And they usually do. And they’re also looking to build a team. That’s not on here, but I absolutely know negative personalities. They’re looking to build a team, and they’re a potential safety hazard. I know a guy. He was an operator of a backhoe and it was a guy with a lot of rank in this organization. Been there for many years and he was very negative, and he was funny. Unfortunately, he was negative and funny. So the guys liked him kind of, and he would hold court in the lunchroom after the workday was done. And he would cut people down, publicly humiliate people, publicly tease people, beyond the point of what I would say is healthy sort of male culture ribbing. Went way beyond that.

And my first meeting with him, when I say potential safety hazard, I said, “I’m here to just get a little info about how long you’ve been here and about what some of your challenges are on your crew and how the communication is going with your coworkers.” And he said, “Oh, I don’t communicate with my coworkers.” I said, “You don’t communicate with your coworkers?” “No, no I don’t. I just do my own thing. I run the equipment. I don’t communicate.” I said, “If you don’t communicate, do you see that as a problem?” “No, it’s not a problem. I just do my work.” I said, “Well, communication and safety go hand in hand. If you’re not communicating, it’s possible you’re a potential safety hazard.” And he did not appreciate that. But it was absolutely true. He was. In fact, there had been some injuries on his crew.

So how do you handle people like this? Directly attacking their negativity usually does not work. If you just say, “Stop being so darn negative,” that’s not going to work. What you can ask is if they say always, never, I never communicate. “I’m curious. What facts brought you to that conclusion? What facts brought you to that conclusion?” That’s a great question. This comes out of Mark Murphy’s book. I really like that question, especially when they say always or never. They don’t have a great answer for it. And you’re sort of calling their bluff in a way.

If they say, “Change always fails here,” ask some clarifying questions. “What changes are you thinking of when you say change always fails here?” I’ve tried this with people. They don’t have an answer. And you have to be careful because you’re really calling their bluff. So you got to make sure to build up some trust between you. If this is going to be effective, you got to have some trust with them, if you can. Sometimes it’s really hard to build trust with negative personalities or any of these personalities. But I like that. “What changes are you thinking of when you say change always fails here?”

People who blame, they emerge when something goes wrong. They throw people under the proverbial bus and they can have an aggressive stance. They’re also socially contagious. All of these personality types can be contagious. But my belief is we live in a culture where so many people pass the buck, where so many people aren’t taking responsibility, aren’t held accountable, don’t hold themselves accountable. That’s partly why I wrote a book. I have a new book out. It’s called Personal Accountability And Power, How Contractors Can Build A Stronger Safety Culture. And I talk about some of these things I’m talking about today in that book.

So they’re aggressive, they’re contagious, and they’re great at derailing conversations because the truth is people who blame, I think of almost any of these five we’re working with, are triggered and they’re in the midst of a shame response. And I don’t know how much you know or have studied shame. And if you don’t know anything about shame, I encourage you to Google. Brene Brown, she’s out of Texas. And she’s a social scientist, speaker, teacher, trainer person, and talks a lot about what happens when people go into shame.

And I think what happens is people feel… shame they say is different from guilt. Guilt is, “Oh, I made a mistake. Sorry.” Shame is more like, “I am a mistake” and you don’t even say sorry, you just feel hopeless or you feel reactive and sort of just down about yourself. And when we’re in shame, we tend to want to blame other people. It’s not me. We want to deflect and blame. And derailing a conversation is a great way to blame and to sort of manage your shame response. It’s not a great way. It’s what we do. It is. It’s a typical way.

So how do we handle people who are blaming, because some of what they’re trying to do is get control, and you can say, “Let’s discuss what we can control. I don’t want to talk about anyone else, just what you and I have control over right now, right here.” And you probably have to repeat this one several times. And this is typically all it takes to redirect most blamers. “I don’t want to talk about anyone else, because they’re blaming. Just what you and I have control over right now. All right, right here.”

And this is typically all it takes to redirect most blamers. If we do this, this is typically all it takes and, and things shift. So control is what they’re trying to avoid. So what you need to skillfully invite them to is to talk about what do they have control over. Not other people, because the truth is we can’t control anybody. Some of us can barely control ourselves. So just remind them of that.