How to lose friends and alienate people

I was doing some networking training at a law firm to help their associates build their practice. To find topics for small talk I advised them to listen to talk radio.

A CBC fan – NOT!

Then I mentioned one of my favorite shows for that purpose which is As It Happens on CBC. A young female lawyer immediately shot back “CBC? I never listen to that left-wing drivel.”Networking advice - are you too opinionated?

Teachable moment

Whoa, now that’s what we call a hard negative! It became a teachable moment. When you meet people for the first time and you’re networking to build some sort of rapport, hard negatives are definitely not the way to go about it.

How a hard negative works

Someone may bring up a topic or an interest or share something as a gambit for conversation such as “I went to the Big Valley Country Music Jamboree this weekend.” If you come back with “I hate country music”, that’s a hard negative.

Some examples of phrases that are hard negatives:

  • I hate…
  • I can’t stand…
  • I never…

Dogmatic – not good even for dogs

Hard negatives make you seem dogmatic, opinionated and closed-minded. If you have no history with the person, it turns people off and sets up barriers to rapport.


What your conversation partner hears is “you think they’re a loser” for liking or enjoying whatever it is you don’t.

I’m just being honest

You might say “But Joanne, I really do hate country music. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say so.” No, you’d be dishonest if you said you liked country. “But I’m just being myself.” Then you’re revealing you are a jerk. If you want to network and build relationships, my advice is to try to use a soft negative, instead of a hard negative.

A soft negative

A soft negative doesn’t mean you love country. Instead, it softly indicates that you don’t share their passion but you’re gracious and interested enough to allow them to enlighten you.

Some examples of soft negatives:

  • I don’t listen to the CBC much. What’s that program about?
  • I’m not very familiar with country music. Who did you enjoy most at the Jamboree?
  • I’m a little out of the loop with this season’s TV. What’s the premise of that show?

How to tell if you’re guilty of hard negatives

Do people go silent or does conversation seems to shut down after you say something? Pay attention to what you just said when this happens. Ask yourself if you tend to counter harmless conversation with closed statements or rebuttals.

It’s small talk, not an argument

Remember that small talk isn’t a debate, cross-examination or a soapbox. Conversation with someone you’ve just met is an opportunity to learn something about the other person’s interests, passions and life. It’s also a chance for you to share your interests and views in a way that doesn’t shut down others.

As humorist Dave Barry once wrote –

“I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me.”

(To fine tune your networking/small talk skills, check out our Complete Professional public seminars or Savvy Networking in-house and conference presentations.)

Posted by Joanne Blake –  Canadian business etiquette expert and gracious networker

About the author 

Joanne Blake

Canadian speaker, corporate image consultant & business etiquette expert. If you're interested in booking a presentation, keynote or coaching, contact me. Based in Calgary / Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada.

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  1. This is great advice Joanne – something you can keep posting on a regular basis to remind us how to be not only gracious but how to begin learning the value of truly appreciating the other person. It sometimes opens doors to exciting things you had no idea of! For example (not just related to a conversation but it fits): We were travelling with relatives who insisted we go to Paris, France. I “hate” big cities and did not want to go. I was quite verbal about not wanting to go (to my husband) but am I glad we went. It is an amazing place and I am looking forward to going back someday. I had an opportunity to have amazing experiences because I listened to someone else.

  2. Hi Joanne:

    I recently read your blog from October 30, 2013, ‘Networking Advice – Are You Too Opinionated’? Thanks for the excellent advice you gave…and always give 😉 In the past I often found myself unintentionally alienated the other party. I thought it was the other person with the problem. Now thanks to you I avoid ‘hard negatives’ and I am able to carry on in a much longer in-depth discussion with the other party. Even though I may disagree with some content in our discussions or may not share many of the same interests with the other party, thanks to you Joanne, we always seem to end our discussions on a much pleasant note.

  3. Great to hear your thoughts John. This is something I have to remind myself of as well when I meet someone who doesn’t share my interests. Recently a new acquaintance shared that she was going to an Oilers game and how much she loved hockey. I was just about to blurt out that I don’t enjoy spectator sports, but instead I smiled and said enjoy the game.

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