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Managing Difficult People:
Turning 'Negatives' Into 'Positives'


Difficult people make for challenging interactions. Learning to recognize the characteristics of negative people and how to work with them can lessen their impact, and maybe even encourage an attitude shift. Education World writer Michele Israel uncovered several coping strategies that have helped veteran school administrators deal with chronic negativity. Included: Tips for handling the pessimists.

You find them at staff meetings, in the classroom, and even on the school bus. They are the ever-pessimistic people whose outlook can drain everyone's energy. Finding ways to recognize and counteract their negativity is essential for maintaining an upbeat work environment.

"Negative people are downers," confirmed Rosemarie Young, principal of Watson Lane Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky. "A negative person can certainly impede progress or change. They constantly complain about their students, the lack of parental or administrative support, or limited materials."

"Negative teachers are negative mentors to their students," explained Paul Young (not related), president of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and principal-on-leave at West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio. "They turn students off to learning. Unfortunately, too many students begin to model what they see and hear."


Astute administrators can distinguish between individuals in temporary rough spots and those in a permanent rut.

Dr. Mike Weber, superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville (Wisconsin) School District, has classified three types of "complainers."

  • The "helpful complainer" has a specific gripe about an issue, but offers constructive feedback that could resolve the problem.
  • A "therapeutic complainer" is experiencing a temporary setback and draws out a confidante to vent frustrations, rather than liberally spreading doom and gloom.
  • The "malcontent complainer" is the one to watch out for, warned Weber. "They have ongoing, persistent problems with many issues, but offer no constructive suggestions. They are energy drainers, " he stressed.


Administrators apply any number of methods when managing difficult people. Topping the list is not assuming responsibility for the person's challenge.


Negative People Depend Upon...

To get what they want, Dr. Mike Weber says negative people depend on the following:

* Attention -- Even negative attention is better than no attention.

* Fear -- The angrier and more negative a person is, the more fearful we are of confronting them; thus, we avoid disagreements with them. The negative person wins by not being called on their actions or attitude.

* Guilt -- Negative people try to raise the level of guilt by making you feel bad about not seeing the world as they do or not having done something they think you should have.

* Intimidation -- Negative people use their attitudes to intimidate and manipulate. You don't want them to talk negatively about you.

* Sense of power -- There are people who love to criticize others. It makes them feel good and gives them a sense of power. The more negatively people react to their criticism, the more powerful they feel.

* Elicit sympathy to add drama to their lives -- Most negative people are craving affection and comfort. Many times, their lives lack the excitement they want; negativity brings drama to their existence.

* Response -- Sometimes negative people say and do things just to "get your goat." If they elicit a negative response, it brings them pleasure and reinforces their notion that the world is negative.

Ed Jerome, principal of Edgartown School on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, cautioned against taking ownership of another's issues. "Help the person solve the problem by first allowing him or her to 'vent' in order to think rationally," he explained. "Sit, relax, and don't become defensive. You want to drain negative energy, not heighten it."


"I try to be more positive around this type of individual," said Rosemarie Young. "I listen to concerns and problems, but I don't allow conversation to be dominated by negative thoughts. Asking open-ended questions might enable the person to think about and see more positive solutions to the situation."

Modeling a positive attitude is also important. "Principals set the tone for everything in their schools," explained Paul Young. "Smile, make pleasant comments, and be positive around negative people."

"Staff members look to you to be upbeat, positive, and decisive," added Rosemarie Young. "In my school, staff members are always greeted in the office, classrooms, and hallways. I maintain an open door policy that lets all know they are welcome. Smiles, compliments, and positive comments are critical for everyone."

Weber said he gets out of his office to let people see that he is part of their community and readily accessible. "I also have great respect, trust, and understanding for my staff," he noted. "You get back whatever you give."

An introspective leader works best with challenging colleagues and peers. "You must reflect on a difficult situation with someone before you react. Ask yourself: What did I do to contribute to this problem?" recommended Weber.

Rosemarie Young said that she builds reflection time into her work. When introducing a new program or idea, she anticipates negative responses and then offers the benefits of the chosen course of action. She also relies on a few key individuals in the school who are her "reality checkers."

Administrators must reach out to peers and find ways to ensure that they are actually positive role models. Paul Young, who admitted getting caught up in "the gutter of negativity" at times, said that mentoring new principals has helped him monitor his attitudes, beliefs, and approaches to people.


Establishing school-based parameters for professional behavior is paramount to maintaining a positive environment, contended Jerome, who spent two years developing a goal-setting process that directs how staff operates in the building. He established a committee to which teachers bring unresolved grievances. Committee members determine whether a teacher's position is correct, and then the members make appropriate recommendations.

Weeding out negative personnel also can occur as early as the interview process. Jerome said that hiring "right the first time gets everyone on the same bus and in the right seats." He looks for fun-loving, flexible team players and conducts interviews with an advisory group.

Paul Young calls on his principal network to find out as much about candidates as he can. He puts them through "grueling interviews" that bring out negativity.

Asking the right questions helps choose the right people, agreed Rosemarie Young. "In the interview...

  • Do they express the belief that all students can achieve at high levels?
  • Do they see colleagues as a valuable support system?
  • Do they seem excited, energetic, and motivated to be successful?
  • Do they talk about what they have or do they focus on what they think they need?"

Weber has instituted a 12-question survey that can reveal a person's attitude. Within 15 minutes, he can determine whether the person has a negative take on life through body language and the way he or she responds to questions. This system, he said, has proven effective in the hiring process.


Once you have the best on board, said Paul Young, it is up to the school leader to make sure they stick around. "You have to continue working hard to build positive, trusting relationships with the people you've hired, eliminating fear, so they can work, learn from their mistakes, and meet your expectations as best as they can," he told Education World.

At the heart of working with difficult people, concluded Weber, should be a personal belief that "most people are good, that they want to do a good job, and want to do right by the students." That, he said, should be the guiding philosophy for any method used to work with difficult, if not all, people.