You steel your nerves and reach for the phone; even energy vampires deserve a check-in.
As you imagine your aunt in her flowered Lazy Boy recliner waiting for Vanna White to come on the TV several hours from now, you hit ‘talk’. She squeals her recognition as soon as you say hello confirming you made the right choice.
But as the “quick call” rounds the 30-minute mark, your leg-jiggle turns to pacing.
Guilt keeps you on the line as you remind yourself you’re the hands and feet — and apparently, ears — of Jesus. When you do pry yourself away, you want to hide in a tub of bubbles but settle for finishing off a tub of Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream.
It’s not just the lost time you begrudge but the stolen mental and emotional energy.
Your aunt (God bless her!) spent most of the time complaining about things you can’t do anything about: politics, the state of the world, and what’s on television.
Is it possible to show Christian love without exposing yourself to so much negativity?
It’s easy to ask, “What would Jesus do?” and recount the crowds of thousands who sought his presence day and night.
But sometimes “what would Jesus do?” isn’t the right question. After all, you’re not Jesus.
Sure, you can try to follow his example (which, by the way, also included avoiding crowds at times), but you can’t follow it perfectly.
So, what Biblical advice can you apply?
2 Corinthians 9:7 tells us: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (ESV)
Although the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth regarding their promised monetary gifts, it’s not hard to imagine God would want us to give cheerfully (and not begrudgingly) of our time as well — even to those who lean toward negativity.
Following are steps to help you check up on negative people with more cheer — and come away less drained.
Prepare your heart and mind
I know: prayer seems obvious. But it can be easy to forget to pray in the everyday situations where it would be most helpful.
When you remember to call on the LORD, you may discover the conversation doesn’t get as negative as on days you forget to pray.
Check in with your own needs.
- Are you hungry, thirsty, or tired?
- Do you have a deadline looming?
- Are you otherwise distracted or distractible?
- Have you been stuck in the house — or in your chair — for too long today?
Listen to your body and take the break you need. Stretch, grab a snack, use the bathroom. Determine how much energy you actually have to give to the other person. If you’re running on fumes, it’s hard to “be the light” to someone else.
Calm yourself down.
Did you know stress can trigger one of two responses: fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend? Tend-and-befriend activates when we’re responsible for keeping others calm — think of a mama protecting her babies while a bear rummages outside their tent.
Your body’s perfect design allows you to respond both ways. To activate tend-and-befriend, switch your focus from the stressor to the feeling of calm you want to exhibit.
Prepare to resist negativity
Adjust your mindset about the person.
Negative people fall into three categories.
- Some are negative on purpose; they really do seem to enjoy it.
- Some don’t mean to be negative; they’re just recounting what they read and hear.
- Others are verbal processors and relay negative information to help them understand the world.
Determining which category the person falls into can be useful, but be careful not to assume too much. People often seem more negative than they are – especially if they’re housebound and exposed to the news media all day.
Adjust your mindset about family.
Interacting with family members can be trying. Because of your shared history, it’s easy to assume intentions that don’t exist.
Imagine your family member, not as your dad who spouts politically charged comments to rile you up, but as the elderly man who sits near you at church. You’d be pleasant, and even if you disagree, you wouldn’t feel the need to express your opinion or to take his too seriously.
This mindset shift raises an emotional shield.
- Your ego will stay uninvolved,
- your blood pressure will remain stable,
- and the conversation will be more pleasant for both of you.
Insulate yourself from negativity.
Plan ahead of time for an activity you can perform while you talk.
- Cook dinner
- Fold laundry
- Declutter a drawer
Performing a mindless task will divide your attention enough to keep your brain from focusing on the negativity – especially in conversations that drone on.
Aim to be an encouragement.
Plan ahead to focus on the positive. Keep a list of anecdotes to share:
- the silly thing your kiddo said,
- the fun story your friend told you,
- the new recipe you tried.
Save funny jokes or memes from social media to read to the other person.
Pivot from the negative.
To maintain a calm, peaceful presence, cultivate a list of dispassionate, go-to phrases to transition away from the negative. Rather than discuss the latest world events, use one of these to pivot toward the positive:
- “That’s why I don’t watch the news.”
- “Yeah, politicians are a piece of work!”
- “I sure wouldn’t want to be making the decisions!”
The calmer you are, the better these phrases work — especially if you also shift to a happier topic: “Yeah, that’s crazy. Hey! Did I tell you what my son’s team is doing to help the local healthcare workers?…”
Ask questions to shift the topic:
- What’s the craziest thing you’ve had for dinner since this began?
- Did you have a favorite game (or toy) as a child?
- What’s your favorite memory growing up?
Depending on the person, use your judgment on this one, and be prepared to pivot if it backfires. But most people become more positive when you spark a positive memory.
Guard your availability.
Even if you’re home all day, you don’t have to be available for conversation the whole time. It’s okay to not pick up the phone, or to let them leave a message.
Or schedule the call for later instead of dropping what you’re doing. “I’m in the middle of something; is this urgent? …. Great! I have time at 4:00. I’ll call you back then.”
Guard your time.
To avoid being on the phone longer than you’d like, plan calls around a natural end-point (e.g., dinner will be out of the oven in 10 minutes) or create one.
Make plans with someone in your household to:
- go for a walk,
- play a game,
- or clean the house together
— and let them know you’ll be ready in 10 minutes. It’s easier to get off the phone when someone’s waiting for you.
(Okay, the house-cleaning one might work better if, instead of “house-cleaning” you substitute “go for ice cream.”)
Setting boundaries at the beginning of the call (“I only have 10 minutes…”) will help curb their expectations so they’ll feel less let down when the call ends.
Small blessings are still blessings.
Keep in mind: even a 5-minute check-in is a blessing! Your loved one gets the feel-good of being called, and you get the feel-good of checking on her without the huge energy drain.
In some instances, a 5-minute check-in every other day may be superior to a 20-minute call once a week. Weigh the pros and cons for your own situation.
Let Go of Guilt
As you prepare to end the call, the other person’s voice may fall, which can trigger feelings of guilt. What to do?
- This is all the time and energy you have available for this call right now; you’re giving your best.
- Just because they’re sad the call’s ending doesn’t mean they need it to continue. And it doesn’t mean they’re guilting you to talk longer. People can be disappointed and be okay with ending the call at the same time.
- Whether the call lasts 30 minutes or 3 hours, staying on longer won’t change their disappointment. In fact, a longer conversation may keep them lingering longer in negativity, which isn’t good for either of you — and increases the odds you’ll voice your impatience (or is that just me?!)
- Even if the person’s sad, you’re not responsible for their mood or social life. We each have responsibility for our own thoughts and emotions.
The good news: you can use strategies to ease their disappointment as the call comes to a close.
End the Call
Give a 3 minute warning.
When your time’s winding down — whether because the oven timer is about to go off or your patience is about to blow — let the person know you’re about to say goodbye, so you can start winding down the conversation.
“It looks like dinner’s almost ready,” or “I’m gonna need to go in a minute,” are both helpful phrases.
End with the positive.
Try not to lie — for instance, don’t say, “It was nice talking to you,” if it wasn’t — but do reinforce a positive aspect of the conversation (“Thanks for telling me that joke. I’ll be sure to share it with the family.”)
Set realistic expectations.
If appropriate, let them know when you’ll talk to them again so they’ll have something to look forward to. Be careful not to over-promise.
Even if you couch your words (“I’ll try to call you on Wednesday”) they’ll be disappointed if they don’t hear from you that day.
If you can’t call until Sunday, tell them. If you can name a time, even better! (“I’ll call you Sunday around 6.”)
After the call
Recognize your sacrifice.
It’s easy to calculate our act of kindness as a gift of time, but it may also be a sacrifice of your energy or your comfort level.
- If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or an introvert, spending time with other people — even on the phone or through texts — can use up your energy.
- If you’re especially active, you may feel like a coiled spring afterward, and have energy to release.
- And if the person is prone to behaviors you try not to engage in (talking about politics, gossip, cursing, etc.), it may be a sacrifice of your comfort level.
Be sure to look for all the ways you’re being loving instead of assuming you sacrificed only your time.
Plan ahead for your needs after the call.
Consider how your unique sacrifices will affect your mood and energy level, and pre-plan a compensating activity for after the call – either to calm you down or to get your wiggies out.
Anticipating this reward can turn the call into a more joyful sacrifice.
Maintain your calm demeanor.
It’s tempting to rehash the conversation with a trusted loved one, and to commiserate the negative aspects of the call. But you worked hard to be generous of spirit on the phone — continue to give the person grace instead of dwelling on the negative.
Keep in mind you may need a few moments to decompress after the call before you interact with your household. And by all means, share the positive!
The Bottom Line
The Bible reminds us that God loves a cheerful giver. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance and these guidelines you can check in on even the most negative people and maintain your own sanity.