Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 11;   March 13, 2002:

When It Really Counts, Be Positive

by

When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.

Ray was relieved. After three difficult meetings, this last one was wonderful. The team had really converged. As the facilitator led them through a mini-retrospective of the meeting itself, he came to the section "What We Liked." People said things like "We were productive" and "We generated some great ideas." When Deanna offered, "Nobody was negative," Ray couldn't restrain himself: "Yes, and everyone was positive."

One negative outweighs a world of positivesThey all laughed, and his remark had some substance, too. We often use negative terms to express ourselves. We describe what is not, what was not, and what cannot be, instead of what is, what was, and what can be. Even though the literal meanings of positive and negative constructions are (almost) the same, positive constructions are safer in tense situations — they energize, they enhance understanding, and they lift spirits.

When Deanna said, "Nobody was negative," she evoked the unpleasantness of the previous meetings. Unwittingly, she reminded the rest of the team of past negativity. If she had said, "Everyone was positive," they would have recalled the pleasantness of that last meeting. Of the two experiences — recalling the unpleasantness, or recalling the pleasantness — the pleasant one can be more helpful and more fun.

Deanna's choice of words probably had little lasting impact in that case. But when tempers flare, when frustration is high, or when there's tension in the room, being positive can help the group maintain its center — or recover it.

We choose between the negative and the positive more often than we know. For instance, I could have titled this essay "Avoiding Negatives." Here are two common situations to get you started noticing the opportunities to be positive.

We often describe what is not,
what was not, and what
cannot be, instead of
what is, what was,
and what can be
Discussing alternatives
In discussing alternatives, we say "I disagree," "It's not so simple," and "That's not the whole story." These phrases can create a feeling of being criticized, and can elicit defensiveness. Try "I agree with a lot of that, and I wonder, what about…" or "I understand, and I'm wondering about the possibility that…"
Expressing our preferences
Expressing our preferences, we sometimes describe what we don't like instead of what we do like. Compare "I have some concerns about that approach — what if X happens?" with "I like that approach. Can we find a way to extend it to cover X?"

Over the next week, carry an index card around and jot down examples of negative constructions that could have been positive. Begin by looking at what others say — it's easier. As you become more sensitive to the choices, a wonderful thing will happen. Effortlessly, you'll find yourself being less negative — oops, I mean, more positive. And you just might find that it catches on. Go to top Top  Next issue: Change How You Change  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally — to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
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Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
A schematic representation of the Milgram ExperimentToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority
Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into a toxic form.
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Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
A Bengal TigerDealing with Deniable Intimidation
Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable responses.

See also Emotions at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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