Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 11;   March 13, 2002: When It Really Counts, Be Positive

When It Really Counts, Be Positive

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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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More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999On Virtual Relationships
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?
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Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.
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When you feel that a colleague has lost professional respect for you — or never really had respect for you — what can you do about it? Check your conclusions, check whether it's about you, and ask for a dialog.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A so-called "Paris Gun" of World War IComing August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
Unripe grapes that are probably sourAnd on August 19: Motivated Reasoning: I
When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security. Available here and by RSS on August 19.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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