The Importance of Being Negative

Do you ever feel in need of a good whinge?  

And having had one, feel better to have ‘got that off your chest’?

For example, when asked to describe their perfect job most people pause, say, “I don’t know”, and struggle to be precise. But if we’re asked to describe exactly what we don’t want we’ll give a quick-fire list.

Why do we generally seem to be able to offer more examples of negatives, rants or problems than priorities, raves or solutions? No – it’s not because we’re a load of miserable ‘Moaning Minnies.’ Neuroscience points us to our need for survival –alleviating threats and avoiding risk is a natural priority. Since we were cavemen, sharing the land with wild animals, our brains haven’t altered all that much.

Biologically, the brain sets out to protect us – so it’s hard-wired to look first for discomforts and dangers. So it’s not surprising that it’s so easy to have a moan.

Workshops may start with a whinge, AKA a BMW (B*tch, Moan and Whine.)

Why? To get the complaints out up front and then get into ‘dealing with them’ mode – having first acknowledged the discomfort, disjoints, disarray and disappointment.

This approach does a number of things:

  1. It gets issues aired, rather than festering below the surface.
  2. It makes matters more transparent.
  3. People have a chance to feel that they’re heard and their issues are acknowledged.
  4. People see that they’re not alone and that their pain is felt/experienced by others.
  5. It allows the conversation to naturally flow into problem-solving i.e. So it’s a problem, so how do we fix it?
  6. Following on from number 5, it provides an opportunity to pass on accountability for solutions and probe further.

Some worry that this approach will fast-forward a session downwards into negative depths. So (looking on the bright side) just what is the argument for letting people let off steam up front in team meetings, training or conferences?

  1. It doesn’t necessarily put people in a negative mindset.
  2. People take comfort and build rapport/gel when they air and share problems.
  3. It’s easy to flip complaints around towards finding a solution.
  4. Other people’s issues always seem easier to solve than our own, so it doesn’t take long for someone to suggest an idea to someone else, and hey presto! – we’re into speedy problem-solving.

Imagine: The boss says there have to be 30% cost savings, and wants positive suggestions from a team already under pressure. It’s a hard ask.

But imagine: The boss says “We’re all under pressure – let’s talk about the annoying and not-so-annoying wastes of time and resources we see daily.”  Then he/she can flip it to say – “OK, so if we could make cost savings, where would they be?”

Which quickly progresses to … “Then if we need 30% cost savings, where should they come from?”

Some may say “It’s all very well for you, running workshops from an external perspective. What if I’m too close to the problem – or my team even sees me as part of the problem?” (We can see how that hard-wiring works, steering us out of danger, can’t we?!)

If it seems tricky to spin back into something more upbeat, these can help:

  1. “We’ve covered what doesn’t work, so now let’s park what won’t and work on what will!”
  2. “So, if we know what isn’t working, what does it look like fixed?”
  3. ‘We’ve all had the chance to get it off our chest, and we can’t sort everything out overnight but let’s start somewhere.”

If we’re really concerned that we won’t see the wood for the trees, then, yes, a facilitator with external perspective many help. Or someone slightly removed – one swamped manager I know recently asked another department’s manager (someone who had resolved similar issues, knew the business inside out and would be able to turn the conversation around) to step in.

The last thing we want to do is encourage endless moaning, little accountability and manager-bashing, so it’s about setting a boundary – providing an opportunity to get issues off our chests but without spending all day doing it, or expecting someone else to fix everything.

How could being ‘negative’ help you today?

Other articles you may like:

Away with wasteful meetings

Feedback as a life skill

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