Negative is not the opposite of positive

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The big bad wolf of positive thinking is negativity. What is negativity and why is it bad? Does it need to be bad? There is a difference between being a negative person and being negative. I am not opposed to positive thinking; I have a very positive mindset myself and consider myself to be optimistic.

“Negative feedback dampens or inhibits output, or causes an event to die away over time”Williams, (1997, p. 12) (cited in Rock, D & Page, L 2009, p 76)

No, NegativeSo what is “Negative” if you look in almost any dictionary you will find the following or similar phrase: “opposed to positive” – Is it really? Humans tend to think in an “either/or”-pattern. Either you are with us or you are against us. Like most data, a single word out of context has no meaning, so we need to provide the context of dimensions.

If I get a good idea, I am all fired up and my engagement is skyrocketing. I just had the best idea, I want to parachute out of a plane. I plan it well, I show you how I am going to jump, and I tell you in detail about the plane and the flight. Until someone says: “You are going to kill yourself” – Since the idea is good, seems like fun, you would not let this negative comment get to you. Until you are in midair and realize he said this because you left the parachute out of the plans. This happens a lot in business meetings.

You are now probably thinking that he could have paraphrased and used different words like: “That sounds like a great idea, but would it work better if you bring a parachute?” – and that is my point. It is not being negative that is wrong; it is all about how the negative is communicated.

The emotional and cognitive part of Negativity

Humans have feelings, we think, we like and we act upon impulses. Negative feelings are about hate and discomfort, anger, frustration. “I think parachuting is stupid” because of fear. Or “I think it is a stupid idea”, because I do not like you. Or in a more sarcastic manner: “oh yeah, please do go ahead and jump”

If we put the negative part in a cognitive view, it is about thinking and concluding based on facts. Still you could reply in the same manner: “I think parachuting is stupid” because you have forgotten something important in your plans and need to bring a parachute to succeed. The phrasing of feedback is also of course important as even if both comments are the same, the meaning behind them is different. So it is all up to the receiving end of the message to interpret your negativity.

A negative emotional conflict must be solved. Having people in an office that dislike each other is unhealthy for at least one.

A cognitive negative view is important to spot the flaw of the plans presented, this is why all companies should have pessimistic people. If you can turn them around, your idea will most likely be good.

The way we communicate negativity

Avoid pointing fingers, blame and accusations. People attacked will automatically go into a defensive stance. A good point is to avoid the word “you” as it will force you to focus on “it” – the plan or idea presented and not the presenter.

“Jumping in a parachute seems like a lot of fun, but would it be safer if we brought a parachute?”
“Jumping in a parachute, ok. How about going skiing instead, we do have skis.”

The positive backfire

What is the reason why projects and plans fail? I can think of two that could have been avoided. The risk analyze is not good enough, potential threats are considered to be less dangerous than they are. People do not want to postpone a project because they will be considered “negative” –  So instead of getting enough information they would think: “We will find a solution if it happens” “It is not such a big deal”

Being modestModesty is another backfire consequence. Modesty was probably the major challenge for me, when I look into the past. I had a hard time to disagree with upper management. It was really hard for me to comment on things they did wrong, unfair stuff or even to say no. This modesty was a fear of being negative and not being liked by the people that decide my faith. It got me into trouble and overwork. It actually created conflict, when I tried to avoid it. Being able to overcome modesty was for me a whole step on the leadership ladder of knowledge. Modesty however is a strong force with new hires and newly promoted people. There should always be a session to overcome modesty in groups. You have probably at some point listened to somebody and thought: “This will never work” – how about thinking: “how can we make this work?” – and speak up. Your callout might be the one that makes the rest of the iceberg visible. If your positive spirit becomes a driving value of your organization, modesty will grow.

In conclusion, being negative is not the opposite of being positive. You can be both. I am positive about your spirit and idea, but I am negative about the solution. And then communicate your negativity in a way that prevents defense. The best thing you can do is to hold your negative thought for a moment and ask: “What will be the critical factor for this jump to be a success?” – it might lead to: “Well we must surely have a parachute and some training” – You spotted the mistake of the plan, and you got the presenter to solve it themselves by asking. You had a critical thought and you could spot it by being negative.

So read the quote in the beginning again. Do you agree?

– Rock, D. & Page, L. (2009). Coaching with the brain in Mind: foundations for Practice. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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