How to Handle the Cynics and Pessimists in Your Life

Leadership takes courage, and my guess is that some days it feels the cynics and pessimists have sucked almost all the courage and hope out of you.

I get that. 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.

Just How Cynical Are You?

Ever wonder what your cynicism level is?

Take this free cynicism quiz and find out.

Practical Help

If you want practical help, my new book Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That Nobody Expects and Everyone Experiences  is tackles the seven core issues that take people out: cynicism, compromise, disconnectedness, irrelevance, pride, burnout, and the emptiness of success and provides strategies on how to combat each.

I wrote the book because no 18 year old sets out to be cynical, jaded and disconnected by age 35. Yet it happens all the time.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s what top leaders are saying about Didn’t See It Coming:

“Seriously, this may be the most important book you read this year.” Jud Wilhite, Lead Pastor, Central Church

“Powerful, personal, and highly readable. ” Brian Houston, Global Senior Pastor, Hillsong

“Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever obstacle you’re hoping to overcome, whatever future you dream or imagine, there is something powerful for you here.” Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries

“Uncommonly perceptive and generous…You have to read this book.” Ann Voskamp, NYT bestselling author

“Masterful.” Reggie Joiner, CEO Orange

“Deep biblical insight, straightforward truth, and practical wisdom to help you grow.” Craig Groeschel, Pastor and NYT bestselling author

“This book is sure to help you.” Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestselling author

Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author

“Nieuwhof’s book provides expert guidance…with an accuracy that pierces the heart.” Nancy Duarte, CEO Duarte Inc.

“A refreshingly transparent guide for all leaders in a wide variety of industries.” Bryan Miles, Co-Founder and CEO, BELAY

You can learn more and get your copy of Didn’t See It Coming here.

What’s Helping You?

What’s helping you navigate cynicism and pessimism?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

7 Comments

  1. free wallpapers on September 9, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Thanx for that. Nice Article

  2. Mike Duke on August 29, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    Hey Bud. Bowen Friedman drove me crazy. There but not there would be the best summary I could muster. I get the premise but done correctly I fail to experience the human condition.
    Good point about principle over emotion. Data of all types are a pastor’s best friend.
    Grace and peace to you.

  3. Bud Brown on August 29, 2018 at 9:44 am

    I would put Get Grounded at the top of the list. It is the most important “move” a pastor can make in order to establish strong and healthy emotional boundaries to protect against the corrosive effects of long-term exposure to cynics, skeptics, pessimists and – worst of all! – passive aggressive behaviors.

    “Getting Grounded” means that you have clearly defined yourself as one who’s worth is dependent solely upon who you are in Christ. Your value as a person, the meaning of your life, and the significance of your contribution to the world all flow from your relationship with God. In Systems theory terms, particularly Family Systems (Bowen, Friedman), this is known as the “differentiation of self.”

    This is hard work. It requires a pastor to work on family of origin issues, perception of self, a proper understanding of the “call to ministry,” clarity about whom it is that we serve, as well as developing greater facility in managing our emotions.

    But the pastors who work on “Getting Grounded” find themselves in an unusual place. Not only are they clear about who and what they are, they are able to stay emotionally connected (and therefore better able to minister) to the cynics, skeptics, and pessimists. But this emotional connection does not “enmesh” the pastor. Instead, it positions a pastor to be able to lead from principle rather than react from the emotions.

    Get grounded, folks!

  4. Mike Duke on August 29, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Nate, I completely understand what you’re saying. By no means am I saying you’re wrong but I’ve found the general problem with cynics and pessimists has not been them but rather us. If I choose to discount them, I become them. If I choose to hear them out, I become different. I’m seeing something they’re not. What they are being cynical or pessimistic about is actually irrelevent. However, if they are challenging the narrative I’m bringing forward, I must take a closer look at their data. All of that being understood, I also realize that cynicism and pessimism never want to be recognized in a mirror. Again, in no way am I attempting to say you’re wrong. Simply offering another angle of view you can choose to use or not.
    Grace and peace to you.

  5. Andrew on August 28, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Did anyone else go look up Reddituser218? 😂😂

    Great stuff as always Carey!

  6. Nate on August 28, 2018 at 1:22 am

    I have a general rule: “If you want to offer a critique of the church, prove to me you care about it.”

    If all they do is complain about things, here’s the truth: they don’t care about the church. They care about themselves.

    Prove to me you care about the church and then we’ll talk.

  7. Mike Duke on August 27, 2018 at 11:45 am

    What’s helping me? I’ve found it’s very important to distinguish cynicism and pessimism from simple questioning of the narrative. How can you not love the cynic or pessimist in our midst? The one that questions the narrative, however, is a challenge for us to grow. In my experience, growing is not something most want to do naturally. Growing is a bit painful at times. It can get itchy and we can have a serious break out of truth acne.
    For years, I chose to simply discount the cynic or pessimist because they were obviously not on anyone’s agenda but their own. But suddenly I realized that it wasn’t their cynicism or pessimism that was the core of their problem. Actually, they had no problem. I did. I failed to realize that generally they simply felt no one was listening to them. This is where I found common identity and therefore had something to build on. It was so silly of me to actually believe I always had something to change them. In my thinking, I was doing the same as them perhaps just not voicing it. This is where I discovered that the cynic or pessimist was being a voice for me be it right or wrong. I simply had to sit back and watch.
    Challengers of the narrative have caused me to reach very deep. I never appreciate them at the time. I would actually rather avoid them but still I can’t get the challenge out of my head. So for a very long time I would catergorize them as a problem that I needed to make everyone aware of. This all pointed directly back at myself and my fear to go deeper still into ideas, thought forms and theology I’d rather avoid. After all, if it won’t financially benefit my wallet, my congregation or my ego why bother, right? Discount them and move on. Oh, but the challenge doesn’t go away!
    Then at some point when I’ve run out of myself, I jump into the challenge bitterly to prove a point. My point. The thought narrative challenger looks upon me with smiles of adoration looking past my bitterness because they know I’ve just grown. Then it occurs to me that I did actually grow. There is then a mutual respect developed between us that is indescribable.
    Thanks so much for allowing me to post. I know there are wonderful shepherds showing up here. I’ve seen the posts. I’ve seen to their desire to impove. A heart only Christ could love.

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