Archives December 2020

Why the negative can be positive

We communicate. We talk to each other. We write messages. As human beings, we exchange information and express feelings. We have several communication channels, and whichever we use, we do it by combining words and phrases to convey concepts.

You probably heard about the fact that words have weight. Whatever we say or write will have consequences: somebody will be happy or sad, will feel confused or enlightened, will laugh or maybe will cry as a result of them. We can hear also in several movies the famous phrase from the Miranda warning: “Anything you say can be used against you in court…” So no doubt: our words have an impact. They often reflect our thoughts and feelings, just as they can have positive and negative connotations.

I heard many times in communication trainings that if we have 2 ways of expressing something, it is more advisable to use the one with a more positive tone. And indeed, it makes sense: economical vs cheap, challenge vs. problem, determined vs stubborn.

Current trends are encouraging this attitude not only in personal life but also in business. We can feel the difference in communication and management styles compared to 20 years ago, and according to the Country and culture, this change can be particularly striking.

But what happens if this strong emphasis and attention to always be positive will distort our message? What if we will be misunderstood?

I was writing in a Facebook Group, asking people’s opinion about training material that I would like to create concerning leadership skills and development. I listed some topics that in my opinion could be interesting and one was about “How to provide negative feedback”. I got some responses, but some people reacted to my way of formulating my sentence, and they suggested it would be better phrased as providing “constructive” feedback instead of “negative”.

In the beginning, I could not understand their point. For me, it was obvious that the word “negative” was related to an unpleasant assessment or opinion to be provided to somebody, and this has to be done constructively, no question on this. But what was the problem of having used the word “negative”? Feedback cannot be “negative”?

At this point, I realised that some people try to be so perfectly “positive”, that they avoid calling things with the appropriate word, so we can seriously lose some attributes of our message.

In a way, it is similar to situations when we feel bad for arguing with somebody. No misunderstandings: arguing is not pleasant, as our communication style can be aggressive and we risk to hurt the other person. But that is part of life, which we know is tough sometimes. We can face challenges, and it is good to recognize them and embrace them as such, even when they turn out to be really difficult ones. The key thing is how we react to challenges. In my view, searching for the solution and trying to recreate the right balance is the correct attitude.

If a person in my team is doing something incorrectly or is performing below the expectations, I have to provide feedback. Constructively, but it will be not easy, because it is about a negative event, attitude or situation. We need to accept this evidence, there is nothing wrong with this. In case there is a mistake, we shall call it a mistake. This will just help us to differentiate mistakes from correct, right solutions. We cannot live without errors, we are humans. Accepting ourselves and others is the first step to succeed in life.

What are the consequences of not using the most appropriate word in some circumstances? If I do not receive correctly a feedback about a mistake of mine, I will probably not focus on avoiding it next time. But I agree on a point: we can convey it with other words. Instead of “error”, we can say “incorrect process” or “wrong solution”, just to name some alternatives. But for a manager, this will not be something “positive” to provide to his team member. It is difficult to give similar feedback. Because if something is not “positive”, as a logical consequence it will be “negative”: exactly the opposite.

In conclusion: as it often happens, the solution is not black or white. Focusing on a positive way of thinking is always productive, it helps us to go ahead. We need to measure our words and try to find the right balance to keep the conversation engaged. However, using sometimes some negative words can be positive: we can emphasise the severity of the situation, maybe it will also give some more “pathos”, some more emotions to the message that will appear more authentic and comprehensive, reaching the originally expected goal.