5 strategies to deal with negative personality types as an EA

Aug 17
Author:Drew McCoy
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They say arguing with a negative person is like rolling with a pig in mud; you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it.

Anyone familiar with the corporate environment will likely have come across ‘that’ colleague at one stage or another. The one that exudes gloominess and negativity in such quantities you’d think Christmas had just been cancelled. As a professional executive assistant, you naturally want to remain friendly, professional and solution oriented. But consistently dealing with such negativity can be extremely draining and ultimately harmful to your happiness and ability to conduct your job.

Practice active empathy

It’s not always possible to understand the root of someone’s issues, there are any number of reasons why someone may be acting in a particular way. It’s always good to keep in mind that negativity often stems from an external source of discomfort, one that may not be easily recognisable. If you approach negative conversations with a mindset determined to give the benefit of the doubt, and even (challenging as it may be) demonstrate more empathy than usual- you may just find that being a sympathetic ear will do far more towards disarming and befriending a negative Nancy than anything else on this list.

Set boundaries

Maybe Nancy had a tough day and just needed a sympathetic ear, but what about negative Norman? He’s been stuck in that mindset since 1985 and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon! As an executive assistant you often don’t have the luxury of actively avoiding this person: particularly if they are a direct report to your executive. You may need to work more actively at establishing boundaries. This process starts by clearly delineating in your own mind your values and what you will and won’t tolerate, communicating this clearly, not allowing any overstepping and finally creating communication structures to restrict the opportunities for negativity – keep your interactions as short as possible.  

Pick your battles

Actively engaging in arguments or discussions with negative Natasha is unlikely to result in any meaningful change on her side, while it has every possibility of sucking you into the maelstrom of toxicity despite your best intentions! That is by no means to suggest you should be a pushover. If there are topics which are actively detracting from your ability to conduct your professional duties or harming your own reputation, it’s time to take a stand. Situationally dependent, this may be through proactively addressing the topic one on one with Natasha, or even involving your executive/ HR if the issue is significant enough. Your wellbeing is important and shouldn’t be neglected, and it often takes a more direct approach to engender actual change.

Be prepared.

Much like Scar preaches in the Lion King, be prepared! If Nicholas consistently brings you down with his favourite topics for a whinge, try proactively preparing your counter points. Should he launch off on an all too familiar train of thought don’t hesitate to politely but pointedly punctuate his pomposity with the cool voice of evidence based reason. Of course this relies on being well researched and sincere in your approach – both the moral high ground and any possibility of a mindset change disintegrate very quickly if you come across as arrogant or disingenuous.

Smile and remain detached

So you’re at the end of your tether – you’ve come in from a place of empathy, attempted to actively listen, exuded positivity and finally used your best powers of logic and persuasion,  but office downer Nathan continues his single minded crusade to share his misery. Smile and nod. Let it go, like water off a duck’s back. Picture yourself lying on a beach somewhere in Tahiti, strawberry daiquiri in hand – whatever takes you away to a happier place. It may sound overly simple but mentally removing yourself from the situation removes the almost magnetic compulsion of negativity to fester and attract company.

Though none of these strategies are likely to be groundbreaking or original, sometimes it helps to take that step back and consider how you’ve been approaching a particular situation. Give some of these strategies a try the next time Naomi comes flying in with her wrecking ball of negativity.


Submitted by Drew McCoy

Drew McCoy

Drew is a Conference Producer at Criterion.

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