A Coaching Power Tool Created by Glenda M Francis
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Not taking in what other people think of you and not making yourself smaller to appease others.–Amy, a millennial program participant
As a life coach, my mission is to facilitate the self-agency of my clients and program participants. I am particularly passionate about the empowerment of women, especially Black women who have long been impacted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and committed to supporting them to unapologetically take up space and live a life of daring. Central to this mission is engaging women to unpack the pain and stories they’ve internalized as a result of long-standing systemic discrimination practices, to mindfully attend to language use, and to reframe limiting perspectives that obstruct their path forward. One such specific reframing tool is Affirming vs. Negating.
As I interact and socialize with women across various backgrounds of age, education, race, class, and sexuality, too often, I’ve experienced that when I’ve invited them to share what they want or envision for their lives, they tend to use ambiguous or passive language or worse, negating language. I’ve observed this practice to be especially true among black and Latina women who represent historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities. There is usually an intuitive shrinking that immediately occurs that is then closely followed by either a pause or declaration of what they DON’T want.
What triggers this seemingly automatic response of negating across groups of women? I suspect that this default behavior may be deeply connected to women’s socialization as primary caregivers who tend to prioritize the care of others ahead of themselves as well as the societal messaging women receive even in today’s 21st century about their roles and value in society.2Now, imagine this gender socialization intersecting with living life on the societal margins of race and class that is buttressed by systemic racism and discrimination and with the accompanying trauma these conditions engender! As the wealth of research in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) (2015), mindsets (2020), and underlying beliefs suggest, these lived experiences become translated into and uploaded as scripts of cultural conditioning, limiting beliefs, and habitual responses that inform women’s self-perception about their worth and value, and ultimately, whether they take up space.
What is Negating?
Negating derives from the base word negate, which theNew Oxford AmericanDictionary defines in this way:
1 nullify; make ineffective.
2 Logic & Grammar make (a clause, sentence, or proposition) negative in meaning.
3 deny the existence of (something).
Under certain circumstances, negating can be quite powerful. For example, negating tends to work well when it is used strategically as a literary device to posit counterexamples about what is/is not intended or what is/is not to establish clarity about a particular matter. Or, in the case where there’s an abundance of evidence supporting an affirmative stance (or perspective) and one wishes to make a strong, divergent distinction to the contrary. Or, more simply, when one really means “no” or denies something. These are not the sorts of negation that are under consideration with this tool.
We don’t always mindfully attend to our language use or are even aware of how it impacts our perceptions and experiences. When negating is deployed as a surrogate for what we want or aspire towards, the effect then, is that it invalidates rather than validates that which we are desiring or hoping to manifest. It communicates that we lack agency over our lives to change our circumstances or perhaps are feeling unentitled or unworthy to dream in a bold color. It may suggest, more fundamentally, that we are misaligned with our sense of self, core values, passions, and life purpose and goals.
The field of neuroscience offers us corroborating data about the role of negation on brain activity. In one such study designed to understand this phenomenon, researchers found that “[n]egation deactivated cortical areas and the left pallidum. Compared to abstract sentences, action-related sentences activated the left-hemispheric action-representation system. Crucially, the polarity by concreteness interactions showed that the activity within the action-representation system was specifically reduced for negative action-related vs. affirmative action-related sentences (compared to abstract sentences). . . This modulation of action representations indicates that sentential negation transiently reduces the access to mental representations of the negated information[emphasis added]”(Tettamanti et al., 2008). It would appear, then, that the brain is more responsive to “action-related” language, which accesses mental representations so crucial for the facilitation of possibility and action.
What is Affirming?
Affirming, by contrast, is loud and demanding and daring. By using affirming language—“action-related language”—we dare to self-own and take up space!
Affirming derives from the base word affirm, which theNew Oxford AmericanDictionarydefines in this way:
1 state as a fact; assert strongly and publicly. • declare one’s support for; uphold; defend.
2 offer (someone) emotional support or encouragement. • give (life) a heightened sense of value, typically through the experience of something emotionally or spiritually uplifting.
Essentially, when we speak affirmatively, we are asserting and declaring our intentions, desires, and goals for our lives. We are, in fact, exercising self-agency. As human beings, we all share the need to find self-fulfillment and realize our potential. This is the need for self-actualization that Psychologist Abraham Maslow described as part of his seminal theory of psychological health. Maslow radically advanced our understanding of how human beings function when he asserted that every human being has a hierarchy of needs(Maslow, 1998).
Similarly, as we affirm what we want, we are also offering ourselves “emotional support or encouragement” of sorts; we cannot underestimate the importance of this practice of self-compassion, especially for vulnerable groups who may lack support systems or access to appropriate societal resources.
Asserting. Declaring. Defending. These are words synonymous with affirming and conversely, practices
unconventionally ascribed to women and certainly publicly uncelebrated in women. In fact, women tend to be punished for exhibiting such behaviors—recall the very public sexist treatment of Hilary Clinton during her most recent run for president of the United States(Rockeye, 2017). Consider, for a moment, how this treatment might be perceived by groups of women: if such a powerful, well-educated, high profile white woman could be treated with such disdain and hyper-scrutiny, what hopes are there for marginalized women, women of color, who dare to dream and shatter ceilings? What wrath can they expect for defying conventional norms?
For many women of color, particularly Black women, the aforementioned characteristics are often used to caricature and denigrate them as “emasculating” women, to portray them as less “feminine” and “beautiful,” and to keep them in their subordinate “place” rather than confront and challenge racist and sexist stereotypes.
Black feminist scholar, Patricia Collins, addresses this very subject in her seminal work, Black Feminist Thought:
“Intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality could not continue without powerful ideological justifications for their existence . . . ‘Black women’s assertiveness and their use of every expression of racism to launch multiple assaults against the entire fabric of inequality have been a consistent, multifaceted threat to the status quo. As punishment, Black women have been assaulted with a variety of negative images.’ . . . Portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas helps justify U.S. Black women’s oppression” (Collins, 2009).
Recently, while facilitating one of my programs with a group of predominantly Black women, I invited the women to envision what they would be doing with their lives if all of their needs were met. After allowing time for reflection, some were able to proclaim bold visions for their lives while others offered unclarified ideals such as “helping my community” or “possibly doing things I’m put on Earth to do.” Afterward, I asked the participants to reflect on what gets in their way of achieving the bold visions they had outlined. One of the participants confessed that she “battle[s] with the audacity of [her] dreams.”Who is she to think so boldly? Who is she to be worthy of a life of happiness and wellness that she self-defines? Thus, the practice of negating reflects a mindset that is perhaps not only rooted in fear, self-doubt, and unworthiness but for many women of color, trauma as well.
When I challenge my clients or program participants to reframe their negating statement to boldly claim that which they want to experience or desire, I’m typically greeted with a range of reactions from an uncomfortable grin or sigh to the deer-in-headlights facial expression. Negating. For much too long, some women have lived in this hallowed space, in denial of their right to hope and dream and aspire and struggle to speak into existence a life that requires daring and vulnerability. The “audacity of dreams.” This is the heart of my work—empowering women to connect to their own voices, stories, power, and life visions to live robust, authentic lives.
So, how might this reframing tool of Affirming vs. Negatingbe applied within coaching contexts? Let’s explore some possibilities.
Affirming vs. Negating in the Coaching Agreement
During the establishment of the foundational coaching agreement, the coach might observe that the client negates when describing what she’d like to explore in the day’s session or the outcomes she’s wanting. For example, the client might state, “I’d like to focus on why I get triggered whenever I’m criticized and how not to get so agitated.” The coach might take notice of the client’s self-awareness and willingness to explore the underlying beliefs. The coach might also notice that the client has not clarified or affirmed the new behavior she’s desiring. Here, the coach might restate the first part of the goal, inquire about the client’s experience of being “agitated,” and support the client to reframe by affirming what she actually wants to experience in those moments if not feelings of agitation.
Affirming vs. Negating in the Exploration of Values/Beliefs/Mindset
As clients explore underlying beliefs and layers of cultural conditioning and arrive at new insights, language use becomes critically important. What role might the coach play in supporting the client to reframe by using affirming language, the language of possibility and daring? For example, a client who is working to overcome the challenge of low self-esteem or confidence might be supported to generate affirmations (intention statements) to rewrite the negative script that she replays. Affirmations such as, “I am enough. I am competent. I am worthy,” could be quite powerful in facilitating mindset shifts. The coach might further challenge the client by asking a question such as, “Since you recognize that you are worthy of a purposeful, happy life, how might you now reframe your earlier statement to affirm rather than negate what you desire?”
Affirmingvs. Negating to Spur Action
Let’s loop back to Amy, the millennial woman whose words serve as the epigraph to this paper. Amy was responding to my closing question about a step or action each woman could commit to taking towards achieving her goals. “Not taking in what other people think of you and not making yourself smaller to appease others.” Negating. I challenged Amy by asking, “If you don’t want to take on what other people think of you and make yourself smaller, then what do you want? Affirm it!”She grinned and recoiled, but was able to “flip” her statement to express that she was going to “try” to be her “authentic self.” Again, I challenged her to reframe “trying” to “committing.”
In its publication on the role of language in mental health, the Hogg Foundation reminds us that “[l]anguage shapes how we see the world. The words we choose and the meanings we attach to them influence our feelings, attitudes, and beliefs…” Given the critical role that language plays in our perception of self and others, it is not hyperbolic to state that language becomes destiny. We tend to become what we believe we are and the language we readily use reveals and confirms this belief. Therefore, two powerful ways that I empower my clients and program participants, who are overwhelmingly women, are to heighten their awareness of their language use and to support them in reframing to affirm that which they want. It is their language use that can serve as an outward indicator of the beliefs that they hold internally. Thus, Affirming vs Negating is a critical reframing tool to move women closer to unapologetically taking up space and living authentically.
Burnette, Jeni et al. April 2020. Volume 77, 101816.“Growth mindsets and psychological distress: A meta-analysis” in Clinical Psychology Review. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/02727358
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2009. “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” in Black Feminist Thought, p. 76 – 106. New York: Routledge.
Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The University of Texas. 2015. “Mental Health Matters:”
International Coach Academy. 2019. “Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).”
______. 2019. “Underlying Beliefs.”
Maslow, Abraham. 1998. Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Rockeymore, Maya. 2017. “The sexist way we pile on Hillary Clinton and stifle women in democracy,” in The Hill:
Tettamanti, Marco et al. “Negation in the brain: Modulating action representations”in
NeuroImage. November 2008. Volume 43, Issue 2, Pages 358-36.
William, Patrick, and Menendez, Diane S. 2015. Becoming a Professional Life Coach: Lessons from the Institute for Life Coach Training, the 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Zaharia, Cătălin et al. December 2015. 27 (4): 355-63. Evidence-based Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy: A Meta-Analysis: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26609647/
Kimberly Wilson, “The Long-Term Mental Health Effects for Black People Living Through Coronavirus and Racial Trauma,” Essence Magazine, June 9, 2020.
2“Feminist Perspectives on Reproduction and the Family,” Debra Satz, 2013, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-family/