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Do You Need To Be Positive ALL The Time?

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Do You Need To Be Positive ALL The Time?

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:

  1. Admit you speak all three: Like everyone, you have the vocabulary by which to praise, disparage and speak neutrally about any subject.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”)
  8. 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?”
  9. 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…”
  10. 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.”

[Jeremy Sherman]

Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years.

Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy

Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher.

Historically: I’ve taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world’s largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24.

Authority: None.

I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they’re based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say “don’t believe everything you think. I’ll go one further: I don’t believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Self-expressively: I’ve written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week.

Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions.

* Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon.

* More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what’s significant and how to respond to what life deals us?

* Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively–not what you should, but what you shouldn’t do. We say “don’t be a butthead,” but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what’s morally in and out of bounds.

* How do and should we balance the ambigamist’s tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta).

I’ve written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another.

Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think.

Purpose: A natural history

Doubt: A user’s guide; a natural history

Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension.

Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.

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