How You Can Spot the Pessimists and Cynics in Your Life

We’ve all had our share of cynics and pessimists try to dissuade us from action.

We live in an age in which there is no shortage of opinion. The challenge these days in leadership (and in life) is that a lot of those opinions are not particularly helpful.

On most teams, boards and in most organizations and churches you’ll find cynics and pessimists who are constantly offering opinions on what you should do, or more frequently, not do.

The question you have is this: how do you handle the cynics and pessimists, whose usual response to your new idea is to explain to you why it won’t work, why it’s doomed to fail or why it’s simply not worth pursuing?

Of course, cynics and pessmists rarely own up to being who they are. Instead, they tell you they’re realists.

Realism is often just a thin disguise for the much deeper problems of cynicism and pessimism.

The worst thing about the constant barrage of negative voices is that they snuff out hope. And you never get to a better future without hope.

So how should you respond? How do you keep hope alive when the cynics and pessimists keep telling you it can’t happen and it won’t happen?

Here are five ways to handle the negative voices that come your way.

1. CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Cynics and pessimists often have opinions on everything. But drill down a little further and you’ll soon discover that in their personal lives, they’ve rarely attempted anything.

Never trust those who have opinions on everything and attempt nothing with their own life.

RedditUser218 can point out everything that’s wrong with everybody else, but scroll through his profile and feed and you’ll soon discover he’s in the business of doing nothing significant other than tearing down others who are attempting to do good things…or anything.

Similarly, Twitter dude with the cartoon avatar and 113 follower likely isn’t making any original contribution of his own. Check his feed, and you’ll soon see he spends his days shooting down others who do.

Criticism is not a spiritual gift. If the only thing you contribute to a conversation is criticism, you haven’t contributed at all.

So when you’re sorting through the various voices that have come your way, consider the source.

It’s not that all negative opinions are bad opinions. Sometimes what you’re saying or doing needs correction in whole or in part.

But what’s I’ve found is that the best critiques come from people who are attempting to do something significant with their lives. I don’t mean famous. It could be as simple as the parent who is trying to organize all the other parents at their school or in their neighborhood. Or the barista who is hustling hard and trying to make each customer have a great experience. Or the student who is getting up early to ace her courses.

That kind of critique can be very valuable, because it comes from someone who’s in the game and trying to make a difference.

They’re the kind of people you can build the future of your church or organization on. So lean in.

But if you’re hearing from the person who has nothing but negative things to say and is honestly attempting little to nothing with their own lives—well, that’s a different story.

After all, cynics never change the world. They just tell you why the world won’t change.

2. LOOK FOR ANY TRUTH YOU CAN FIND

All that said, your critics are probably never entirely wrong.

When you hear criticism, ask what part of it might be valid. Maybe the idea isn’t great after all. Or perhaps it’s a great idea, but you could have angled it differently, or shared it in a more helpful way.

You can learn from everyone, and you should have the humility to learn from anyone. Even your critics.

Even if what they said is 99% unhelpful and defeatist, learn from the 1% that might help you.

Pray about it. Talk about it with a trusted friend. Learn and grow.

3. DON’T FIGHT A BATTLE YOU WON’T WIN

As much as you want to learn from cynical and pessimistic people, you’re probably wasting your breath in trying to fight back or change their mind.

I’ve found the best way to engage a (true) cynic or pessimist is this: thank them for their viewpoint, and move on.

I used to spend a lot more time trying to change people’s minds and convince everyone to come along. Sometimes it worked, but usually the latent pessimism would surface again soon, and I would emerge out of those conversations exhausted and depleted.

Years ago, someone shared this with me:

Don’t wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig liked it.

There’s a little too much truth in that.

The best way to win a battle with a cynic is to move on and build a better future.

Results have a way of speaking for themselves.

Results also usually either silence the critics or reduce their influence to the ever-shrinking group that will listen to them.

4. WATCH FOR THE CYNIC IN YOU

Ah yes…so you’ve noticed the push-pull in their post.

Wait…you’re dealing with critics by criticizing them? How beautifully ironic and hypocritical.

Well, yes and no.

You can get all cynical about the cynics and travel deep down that wormhole, but I’m not sure anyone wins in that scenario.

That’s NOT what I’m trying to do.

On the other hand, you can also pretend every voice should have equal weight. Just be open and don’t differentiate between the different voices you hear and the sources they come from.

The problem with that is that it’s a recipe for inertia. When you have five conflicting voices (several of them negative), what do you do? Well, then you do nothing because everything grinds to a halt. So that’s no good.

If you always listen to negative voices, you’ll accomplish nothing.

However (and this is a big ‘however’), the more you hear negative voices around you, and the longer you lead, the more easy it is to become cynical yourself.

If you’re not careful, responding to the cynics around you can deepen the cynic within you.

There’s a part of me that’s always tempted to reply to the cynics with an even deeper cynicism. See point #1. (You should see what goes through my head some days that never makes it past my lips or onto the keyboard. It can get dark.)

It’s so easy to get dragged down into a mind-set that’s just negative about negativity, but nobody ever wins in that space.

So what’s the point in all of this? The point is this: become discerning about who you’re hearing from…discerning enough to when to listen and revise, and when to listen and just move on.

And while you’re doing that, fight the cynic inside you. Every. Single. Day.

Return to hope again and again. Keep trusting, Keep believing. Keep making progress.

5. STAY CURIOUS

An incredibly effective antidote to cynicism is curiosity. Yes, simple curiosity.

One thing I’ve noticed again and again is this reality: curious people are never cynical, and cynical people are never curious.

Think for a minute about the wonderfully curious people you know: a friend, a former teacher, a neighbor, or an uncle. You’ll quickly realize that the curious are always interested, always hopeful, and always open to new possibilities. Some grandparents are infinitely interested in their children and grandchildren, asking questions, discovering new things together, embracing the changing possibilities of a new world.

Some older people have more joy for tomorrow than they did decades earlier and become cheerleaders for hope in their communities, families, and congregations.

So if you want to foster hope and bring about a much better future, stay curious.

Feed your curiosity, and it grows. Starve it, and it withers.

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