April 2015

Be Positive

Do Good, Not Harm

Being positive in conversations is possible, even when the conversation involves negative feedback.

Positive psychology has done a lot of good but it has also done some harm. I cringe when I hear how schools and parents are praising kids regardless of how well they do, how much effort they put in, how they work with others, or how they are progressing. I believe this comes from the desire to be positive rather than negative but also from not knowing how to give constructive criticism positively or how to motivate people effectively.

This month, our focus will be on how to be positive in conversations, including those that involve negative feedback. I believe that this skill is paramount for parents, teachers, supervisors, managers, and leaders. Imagine that whenever you left an encounter with someone who gave you critical feedback, you felt great. You thanked them and looked forward to performing at a higher level, using their feedback well. Imagine feeling enriched by the encounter and experiencing gratitude.

Sadly, this is not the case with many leaders, managers, supervisors, spouses, friends, or parents. As we go back into Sally and Donna's lives, look for ways in which they and the folks around them, are practicing the positive...or not.


Sally and her husband, Larry, return home from eating out. At the restaurant, Sally saw that a call came in from Alex. Though she didn't take the call, because our brains work by association, simply seeing his name and number on her screen triggered her. Her mood at the restaurant had shifted dramatically—for the worse. When Larry attempted to support her, she turned on Larry too. They drove home in icy silence.

As Sally enters their home, she turns to Larry and spits out, “Even you betrayed me!” Then she stomps off to the bedroom. Used to this kind of melodrama, Larry says nothing and goes to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a scotch. He puts on the TV and, scotch in hand, settles in to watch the game he taped.

Within a few minutes, Sally storms out of their bedroom. “What is wrong with you? Have you no ability to be compassionate? You know I'm a mess and yet you just sit there enjoying yourself. If you were a good husband, you would have come to make sure I'm okay. But you don't. I know you don't really care about me.”

Larry works hard to keep from rolling his eyes and expressing his exasperation. “Sally, you know that's not true. I love you more than anything. I just don't know how to help you when you get like this.”

“You really are a loser, Larry,” Sally continues railing at him. “I can't believe that I put up with you. If this is how you show love,...well, I just can't believe that after all these years, this is all you can do. How can you not know what to do for me to show me you care after all these years? Apparently, you've learned nothing.” Sally turns on her heel and goes back into the bedroom.

Larry sits there for a while, sipping his scotch and considering his options. If he says what he really thinks, he will pay dearly. If he does nothing, he will pay dearly. He decides to go into the wolf's den and attempt to let Sally know he cares.

Larry opens the door and Sally starts yelling immediately, “You know that I have a meeting with my boss tomorrow morning and you can't even talk with me about it. You don't care if I'm happy or not. Just say it. I know it anyway.”

Larry is struggling to hold himself together. He really wants to slam the door and say, If that's what you think, take care of yourself. He has the good sense to keep his mouth shut, however. Instead, he walks into the room towards Sally and in a very quiet voice says, “Sally, I love you. Let me hold you.”

Sally turns away but doesn't leave. Larry goes toward her and hugs her. She lets herself be hugged and starts crying softly. “What is happening to me? I have never felt so horrible in all my life.”

Larry continues to hug her while Sally moves between talking about the meeting tomorrow, feeling betrayed by Alex, being angry at Larry, and feeling miserable. Eventually, they go to sleep.

Now let's check back with Donna...

We left Donna after she completed a difficult conversation with a direct report. The conversation went extremely well as Emily, the project manager of the project in trouble, was open, self-reflective, self-responsible, and forward thinking. Donna simply held the space for Emily to go through her own learning. Donna did intervene here and there but mostly to ask questions and support Emily in going through the process in which she was engaged.

Now back in her office, Donna stands and looks out the window. She feels really proud of herself. She remembers how she used to handle these kinds of situations before her accident and before she began her studies in authentic leadership. She can't quite believe that she used to think it was beneficial to admonish someone for what they had done wrong as if they weren't aware of it themselves. She feels a bit embarrassed just thinking of it. But she knows that she simply did what her parents and teachers had done to her until she learned a different approach. A wave of gratitude washes over her as she thinks about how lucky she was to have the time to learn and grow following her accident. It's weird to feel grateful for the accident which was so horrible but she knows its really about the time afterward. She stands there for another moment, appreciating the trees, birds, blue sky, and fountain she sees from her window. Then she sits down to get back to work.

Donna puts a note in her calendar three days out to check with Lorin about the project. She decides that the next scheduled All-Hands meeting for her division will focus on rigor in execution. She sends an email out to her team to find out who wants to present. She checks her calendar to see where she is supposed to be when, then finishes going through emails.

Donna has learned to clear out her inbox by addressing all the small items immediately, delegating others, and prioritizing those that need more attention. This is one of the hardest areas for her. She feels so good when her inbox is empty and suffers when it gets full and over-full. She thinks of her children, Katie and Kyle, and how much she values time with them in the evenings and how much she loves weekends with her family. That motivates her to make decisions and move through her inbox. She really doesn't want to spend her evenings and her weekends doing this! That is for sure.

Donna's alarm goes off and she realizes that almost an hour has gone by. She gathers what she needs for the project meeting that she has in 10 minutes, finishes the email she was addressing, and heads off down the hall. Sasha, one of her direct reports who was having conduct problems, pops out of her office when she sees Donna coming.

“Do you have a minute?” Sasha begins. “I'm having a problem writing my development program.”

“Hi Sasha,” Donna greets her. “I'm on my way to a meeting so you can walk with me if you'd like. Otherwise, get yourself on my calendar for some time this afternoon. I'm glad that you're working on a plan for your leadership development. That's great. I look forward to seeing what you've put together for yourself.”

“I'll wait until this afternoon,” Sasha responds. “I'd rather that we can look at the screen than just talk about it. Thanks and I'll get on your schedule.”

Sasha disappears in her office and Donna continues down the hall.


It's no wonder that people respond well to Donna while they are struggling with Sally.

Sally is still unaware that she is being negative, let alone how her negativity affects those around her. She justifies her behavior by saying that she is simply sharing her feelings. Isn't that what people want? She has no idea that what she is sharing are her defensive reactions, not her authentic feelings. However, those around her are wary of her due to her liberal attitude about sharing her negative reactions and perceptions.

Donna, on the other hand, is gaining a reputation for being able to handle delicate and complex situations well. Those around her see her as having a knack for these “people issues” though she knows it is a skill she has cultivated over the last couple of years. She still works hard at thinking through how she wants to address a situation with someone that she thinks may be delicate. She starts by thinking of the outcome she wants, then she works backwards and figures out the best way to approach the individual or the team. She sighs. It is hard work. Maybe one day, with a lot of practice, this will become second nature. But for now, it is working and for this, she is happy. She knows that being positive, even when things get dicey, is the way to go. Her interactions with her direct reports, peers, and supervisor as well as her family are testament to her new approach.

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