Ten tips for when to be positive, negative and neutral
Sure, English is all one language but think of it as three for a moment—your ways of talking enthusiastically, disparagingly and neutrally about anything. Call the languages positivese, negativese and neutralese.
Do you use your three languages appropriately? What would it mean to use them appropriately? Here are some ideas about how to use your three languages:
- Admit you speak all three: Like everyone, you have the vocabulary by which to praise, disparage and speak neutrally about any subject.
- Ignore the ban on negativese—it’s impossible nonsense: People argue that negativese is bad. Hypocritically they say, “No negativity!” They argue that with practice you can stop being negative and you should, because it’s never useful. Wrong on all counts: It’s impossible to stop. No one does. And it’s sometimes useful. The question is not whether to speak negativese but when and about what.
- Get better at knowing when you’re speaking which language: People often think or claim they’re being neutral when they’re not. Or they say “I don’t mean to be critical but…” as though declaring themselves uncritical makes it so. One reason we can’t tell is that we’re trying to employ unworkable rules like the hypocritical “no negativity” rule above, which is a perfect example of not knowing which language one is speaking: “I don’t mean to be critical, but negativity sucks.”
- Don’t pretend you’re neutral when you’re not: We also like to pretend we’re neutral observers. It’s easy to see why. Objectivity is power. Lawyers are biased; judges are neutral. That’s why judges get the last word. Pretending we’re neutral judges sets us up to get the last word.
- Employ the Spin Doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: In general, when deciding use the power of neutral thinking; once you’ve decided, use the power of positive thinking to enforce your decision, and the power of negative thinking to discount the alternatives to your decision. Neutralese for deciding; positivese and negativese once you have decided.
- Use carrots (praise, rewards, positivese) and sticks (blame, punishment,negativese) wisely, which is harder than you think: When motivating others, we all use carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments. Both work, but both can backfire. Rewards encourage, but also breed complacency, which is why a teacher doesn’t say on the first day of class, “You all get A’s!” Sure, it could confidence, making students try harder, but it can also make them think, “Why bother? I’ve already succeeded.” Punishment can discourage, paralyze, or breed resentment, which is why teachers don’t tell students “I’m giving all but the top five students F’s.” Nut negativese can also goad, making people say, “That’s right, not good enough. I’ll try harder” Carrots and sticks are the only motivational tools available. Both can work or fail, so we have to bet when to use which.
- Don’t pretend that people can and should just talk straight: When motivating others, we try to get the right mix of positivese, negatives and neutralese. If we start with positivese, (“Hey congratulations, that’s real progress!”) and it breeds complacency, we’ll try negativese, (“You’re falling short.”). If that breeds discouragement, resentment or paralysis, we’ll go back to positivese. Watch a kid run circles around a pliant parent, systematically getting complacent when praised, sullen when criticized and when the parent keeps switching between the two, blaming the parent for inconsistency. (“But I thought you said I was doing well.”)
- We build the maze as we run it: Think of life as running a maze of our own making. In motivating ourselves, negativese reflects the “don’ts,” the walls of the maze. Positivese reflects the “do’s,” the good paths worth taking. Neutralese is a good way to talk to yourself when you can’t tell whether a path is a “do” worth taking or a “don’t” worth walling off. The “no negativity” impulse is to say “no walls, it’s all good, let freedom ring.” But pure freedom is not really what we want. We don’t want to wander just anywhere. Some paths are better than others, and to stay on paths, we welcome the walls. Self-criticism is negativese aimed at walling off options, keeping us on the paths we want to be on, growing in the right direction. Yes, one can have too many walls, which is why it’s nice to also have neutralese, a way to wonder, “Wait, what do I really want? What options should I wall off? What options should I encourage for myself?”
- Know the vocabularies and how to translate between them: As an example, in neutralese we talk about sticking with choices. In positivese, we translate that into dedication, commitment, and steadfastness. In negativese, we translate it into stubbornness, pigheadedness, and obstinacy. Likewise, “Changing a decision” is neutralese that can be translated into positivese as flexibility or into negativese as flip-flopping. This kind of translation can be applied to all sorts of moves people make. Get good at translating and you’ll begin to know when you’re talking which language. You’ll also be less likely to fall for someone’s “I don’t mean to be critical but…”
- Use Spinplexes: We can reinforce or neutralize spin by combining it. For example, if you want to reinforce an argument that sticking with a choice is good, combine positive spin saying, “Not only does this show dedication, but it shows commitment and steadfastness. If you want to neutralize it say, “Yes could be dedication or could be stubbornness.”