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How to Handle Negativity Like a Pro

What can we learn from the Dutch masters of water management about battling emotional contagion?

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Ever notice how emotions, especially really strong ones, are contagious? When we see someone suffering, we feel pain. When someone is sad, it affect us, too. Conversely, when someone is filled with joy, it lifts our spirits.

The funny thing is we can catch emotions even without a person being in the same room. Otherwise, how could we laugh or cry when watching a movie? Cue Beaches, When Harry Met Sally, or The Notebook.

The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that’s what you’ve given me. That’s what I’d hoped to give you forever.”

—NICHOLAS SPARKS, THE NOTEBOOK

“Tissue, please.” Think about that. It’s not even a real person in front of you pulling at your heart strings — just a bunch of pixels and sound waves.

We can take it even further. It doesn’t even have to be a real person. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’d guess at some point during the animated movie Inside Out there might be some water works.

There is even a term for this. Emotional contagion, which is defined as

“the transfer of one person’s emotions and triggered behaviors to another person, who will experience similar emotions and triggered behaviors in response.”

I’m not a psychologist so I won’t get into the technicalities of how this occurs. However, I will point out that emotional contagion has an adaptive function — it helps you coordinate better with others.

Imagine walking into your boss’ office to ask for a favor when they are having a bad, bad day. Chances are, if you don’t notice, soon, you too will be having a bad, bad day. Or if you are a parent, ever wonder when your kid realized they are better off asking for things when you are in a good mood?

What can be really challenging, and I think a lot of people have experience with this, is when someone in your life is constantly negative. This might be a coworker, family member, or even a close friend.

Complaining. Criticizing. Monologuing. Will it ever end? It’s as if they have a cloud following them around raining negativity. If you are not careful, you will get drenched.

A lot of time, we are successful at withstanding another’s negativity. We avoid being sucked into the emotional abyss. However, there are times the onslaught of negativity floods us and we begin to drown in it.

I don’t know much about the Dutch approach to psychology, but there is one area where the Dutch are leading experts. That area is water management. A lot of the Netherlands should be underwater, but through a combination of engineering, governance, and culture, the Dutch have done the impossible and fought Mother Nature to a draw – most of the time.

We can view emotional contagion as a form of emotional flooding. By leveraging the principles of water management the Dutch have mastered, perhaps we can learn a thing or two about negativity management.

THE BEGINNING

One of the earliest Dutch innovations in water management were the 15th-century polder windmills, which used the power of the wind to pump water out from swampy areas. These were supplemented by dikes, which were physical barriers to prevent the intrusion of water. Together, these two techniques allowed the Dutch to reclaim vast areas of land below sea level that otherwise would have been underwater.

THE REMOVER

The polder windmill handles the flooding after it has occurred by removing the water before it accumulates and causes more serious damage. We can use this same principle emotionally.

To avoid the detrimental effects of negativity that has managed to enter our lives, we can remove it. Negativity is not tangible so we can’t pick it up or pump it out, but we can remove it with positivity. A few ways we can do this are:

  • Getting fresh air and exposure to sunlight
  • Spending time with people or animals you love
  • Engaging in activities you enjoy
  • Exercising
  • Practicing gratitude

THE BLOCKER

A dike is a physical barrier used to control or confine water. Common materials used to contruct them over the years were earth, wood, rocks, or sandbags. A dike handles flooding by preventing water from entering an area in the first place.

Instead of dealing with negativity after it has intruded, we can try to keep it at bay. I like to think of this as the “Not in my house!” approach to managing negativity. Some examples of ways we can block negativity are:

  • Changing the subject to a more positive one
  • Being silent, signaling you will not participate
  • Countering negative language with compassionate language

BREACHES HAPPEN

For centuries, this Dutch approach to water management kept them safe. However, this sense of safety was breached in 1953, when the North Sea broke through, flooding more than 2,000 square kilometers and killing over 1,800 people overnight. From an emotional perspective, while blocking and removing negative emotions can be effective, at times we can be overwhelmed, as well.

THE RESPONSE

After the terrible losses caused by the 1953 flood, the Dutch responded with the Delta Works — an ambitious program with more sophisticated approaches to water management. A major aspect was building nine enormous dams and four storm barriers. However, keeping water away is a double-edged sword. Water is not only an enemy, it is a friend. Removing water or changing the flow can damage ecosystems and interfere with trade conducted via waterways.

Recognizing this, the Dutch looked for a way to balance the benefits and dangers of water. In a stroke of engineering ingenuity, they constructed the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier, with 62 openings of 40 meters wide. Normally, the barriers remain open so water can flow freely. When extremely high tides are forecast, these openings are closed to protect from flooding.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Like blocking water, blocking all negative people from our lives is not practical or ideal. If you vow to only spend time with positive people, you will be forced to cut a lot of people out of your life. Some negative people may be fiercely loyal to you or have other positive attributes that enrich your life. Also, exposure to negative people provides us an opportunity to exercise compassion. The last time I checked, a really positive, upbeat person doesn’t generate compassion.

This creates a Negativity Dilemma. Do we put ourselves in harm’s way by spending time with negative people or do we cut them entirely out of our lives and suffer the consequences? Thankfully, the choice need not be so black and white. Like the moving barriers of the Oosterschelde, we can remain open as a default and when we predict a high risk of emotional flooding, we can close our emotional gates.

LIMITS HIT

The Delta Works protected the Dutch for decades, but extreme flooding in the ‘90s caused mass evacuations. In addition, concerns about climate change and rising sea-levels forced the Dutch to consider the limitations of dikes and barriers.

NEW APPROACHES

In addition to building more walls and dikes, the Dutch also began applying a more long-term, holistic perspective on flooding. A hallmark of this new approach was Room for the River, a massive $3 billion project started in 2006 that involves some 40 different infrastructure projects along Dutch rivers and waterways. At the heart of the project is the idea that instead of keeping water at bay, space can be allocated to safely accommodate flooding.

LET IT BE

One approach to accommodating flooding was to remove dikes and other obstructions. When you remove a massive object from an area, it makes space for the water, thereby lowering the level.

Making space for negativity is not about joining in. It’s not about saying you seek it. It is about allowing it to exist without trying to block or control it. Ever notice what happens when you try to convince a person they shouldn’t feel a certain way? When we fight negativity, this can fuel it instead of extinguishing it. Remember how you felt the last time someone told you not to be upset. Some ways we can make space are:

  • Listening to the person with compassion
  • Avoiding constantly trying to change their mood
  • Validating the person

MAKE ROOM

Another method used to accommodate flooding was to broaden and deepen flood channels and floodplains. Doing so creates more capacity for water in the area, lowering the chance of flooding.

When we take better care of ourselves, we are able to access the best version of ourselves. We can tap into our deepest reserves of patience and compassion and become more emotionally generous. Some ways we can do this are:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating healthily and staying hydrated
  • Maintaining good physical fitness
  • Stabilizing your finances
  • Healing your relationships

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Removing negativity and blocking it out are effective, until your threshhold is exceeded. A bigger and better version of this approach will give you a higher threshhold, but it comes at a price. When you entirely block negative people and emotions, you lose the positive, along with the negative.

A more holistic approach to managing negativity in your life includes taking steps to better accommodate it. You can make more space for negativity by removing some arbitrary barriers you use to defend against it and taking better care of yourself. One of the main determinants of how we respond to others is our own health and mood.

Finally, the goal here is to manage negativity in our lives — not defeat or vanquish it. As we learned, there are several approaches we can bring to bear. If we take a proactive approach to managing negativity, instead of reacting in the moment, we can battle negativity with the skill of the Dutch, and in doing so become masters of negativity management!

Note: Thanks to the following Earth magazine article for providing background with respect to Dutch water management history and techniques.


Learn More

As the Connection Counselor, Joe Kwon helps busy professionals elevate their careers by teaching them how to connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere. His emphasis is on practical learning, delivered in an entertaining, heartfelt, and inclusive manner.

An acclaimed coach and keynote speaker with over 20 years of experience in Corporate America, his goal is to help you unlock the best version of yourself.

His new leadership book, Unlock Your Executive Presence: Feel like a Boss finally wrestles this elusive ability to the ground and teaches you how to actually generate it to elevate your career.

Joe holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Virginia (Go Hoos!), a law degree from Georgetown University (Hoya Saxa!), and lives in New Jersey with his wife and son.

To find out more about Executive Presence and access free leadership videos, podcasts, and guides, go to www.connectioncounselor.com.

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