When It Really Counts, Be Positive
by Rick Brenner
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."
They 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. Top Next Issue
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