Sometimes paying attention to what works well is a better solution than focusing on what needs to be fixed
What would you do if you were a high school teacher and found that two unruly students were taking all of your time and energy and distracting everyone in the class? Early in her teaching career, my friend Lisa found herself confronting this problem.
She did everything you might expect. She counseled the students, punished them when they got out of line, spoke to the parents about their behavioral problems, etc. However nothing seemed to work.
Although most of the students in Lisa’s class were wonderful, she couldn’t help but find her attention pulled constantly to managing problems from the two most challenging kids. Sometimes, she would come home on the verge of tears.
One night, she decided to try a different approach. Rather than calling the parents of the two boys, she called the parents of all the other students in the class. “I wanted to let you know what a pleasure it is to have your child in my class,” she said. “He/she is always helpful and eager to learn and makes teaching a joy.”
The next day, the energy in the classroom was palpable. All the students (except two) had been showered with praise by their delighted parents. They were feeling good, and the buzz was contagious.
At the end of class, the two rebels approached Lisa sheepishly. They wanted to know why their parents had not received a call. “I wanted to recognize the students who are really making an effort in class. I’ll call your parents too, as soon as you give me good reason to!” she said.
This was the beginning of a transformation for those students and a change in Lisa’s teaching and leadership style that would follow her for the rest of her career.
I call it “the positive flip”: taking a situation where your natural instinct is to focus on problems and you instead flip it on its head. Sometimes, paying attention to what works well is a better solution than focusing on what needs to be fixed.
The positive flip doesn’t come naturally. Psychologists say, “bad is stronger than good,” noting that humans have evolved to have a “negativity bias.” We have a higher sensitivity to problems and risks because reacting to threats is what helps us survive. But when the negativity bias gets in our way, we can benefit from practicing a positive flip. Here’s how:
> Notice your propensity toward the negative. Where do you find your time and energy bogged down in wrestling with problems or responding to threats?
> Notice the good you might have missed. Has your attention on problems caused you to ignore things that are working well? Has a focus on weaknesses caused you to overlook strengths?
> Give your energy to the good stuff. What can you learn from what has gone well? Can you give more time and energy to generating more of what you want?
Wouldn’t you rather spend time using your strengths than working on your weaknesses? Celebrating your successes instead of analyzing failures? Appreciating those who have helped you rather than arguing with those who get in your way?
When Lisa learned the power of the positive flip, she started applying it to everything. Eventually she went back to school to study positive psychology and now coaches people on how to be more successful by focusing on what works well.
The positive flip may seem unnatural at first. But the more you do it, the more you realize how many good things are happening around you. And this is where your time and energy should be spent.
JEREMY McCARTHY is director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Read more of his writing at psychologyofwellbeing.com.