chalkboard with printing and check boxes: half full half emptyFrom Dr. Amit Sood, Chair, Mayo Mind Body Initiative in: Train Your Brain, Engage Your Heart, Transform Your Life:

“Research suggests that the human mind has a propensity to pay greater attention to and process the bad compared to the good, a phenomenon often called the negativity bias. Bad feedback has greater impact; bad impressions are quicker to form; bad information is processed more thoroughly…and negative stereotypes are easier to form.”

We all know people who seem to thrive on the negatives in life. They can look at what is perceived by others as a beautiful picture and spot the flaws, almost taking pride in their role as watchdogs against perfection.

“Your little Italian lights aren’t twinkling, Clark.”  “I know, and thanks for pointing that out, Arthur.” Paraphrased from the movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

While some verbalize their negative views on everything, many of us struggle to control this demon internally. We get down and stay down after some negative feedback. We focus on the impending catastrophe in our lives and in our jobs. It’s usually just out of reach, but surely getting closer by the moment. We forget to celebrate the victories and life’s special moments because we’re preoccupied on all that’s wrong in our lives, workplaces and careers. 

A Really Short Course in How the Brain Works:

While the neuroscience of it is beyond my training,  as Dr. Sood describes, we have two primary centers of the brain that control our thoughts: the higher cortical and the lower limbic centers. “Increased activity of the lower limbic center makes you anxious, unhappy, depressed and stressed. Activation of the brain’s higher cortical center helps you be calm, happy joyous and resilient.”

And while the choice is our in terms of which center of the brain to activate, for many of us, our natural propensity is to focus on the lower limbic center.  Our evolutionary wiring seems to support our ease for accessing the negative versus the positive. Dr. Sood uses the analogy of a short, fast broadband connection to the lower limbic center and a long slow, narrow band connection to the higher cortical center, to describe our human wiring. In other words, we’re predisposed to spend our time playing in the mental gym of negativity and stress than we are that very different place of mindfulness, peace and positivity. 

4 Ideas to Add Bandwidth to Your Positive Brain Center

1. Read and Apply: Dr. Sood’s book is a program in his words to: “enhance attention, decrease stress; cultivate peace, joy and resilience; and practice presence with love.” I love his research-backed perspective and Mayo Clinic legitimacy…rare assets in the self-help community. Another source focused on teams and the workplace is Shirzad Chamine’s recent book, “Positive Intelligence.”

2. Get Help: A professional I admire a great deal recently indicated that she sought help from a personal coach to combat “negative self-talk.” Objective feedback and direct support for retraining our brains are two of the dividends of engaging a qualified coach. If you recognize your propensity to go negative, and if the books don’t cut it, get some qualified help.

3. Ignore Unsolicited Negative Feedback: Not all feedback is created equal. The negative review of your book on Amazon or the consistently negative comments from your boss or a co-worker are gasoline for our negativity engine hanging out there in the lower limbic center. While easy to say, train yourself to solicit and focus on feedback (both constructive and positive) from trusted, quality sources. Ignore everything else.

4. Work on Your Positive Communication. In my feedback courses and coaching, I find that one of the most difficult issues for people to grasp is the need to deliver ample quantities of positive (behavioral and business-focused feedback). I teach a technique for this and I encourage people to spend a few weeks and keep a tally of their positive to constructive feedback ratio. Most start out at a negative ratio…and the target is to get to a 3:1 positive to constructive. Those who have succeeded at this, report the greatest improvement in their own work performance and working environments.

(Shameless plug: my new online course-Learning to Master Feedback, will help any professional with this positive feedback issue!)

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We do have a choice to take our comments and our thoughts negative. I’ve found that governing the negative output (comments) is somewhat easier than managing our internal negative self-talk. Nonetheless, one supports the other. Seek help, get help and work hard at fighting off your negativity demons and you’ll be a much happier, healthier and more effective leader and person.

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