A Coaching Power Tool Created by Scott Berry
(Life Coach, THAILAND)
This paper investigates the power tool ‘negative versus positive thinking.’ The article adds to the work of Marie Holive, who recently explored this theme in her own wonderfully written power tool, posted on the ICA Learn Site here. Marie explored this theme through the lens of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). I will investigate the theme through the lens of cognitive-behavioural coaching(CBC). Cognitive Behavioral Coaching is a counselling and coaching method that assists clients to use the power of their thinking process to influence attitude, feelings, habits and behaviours. As well as a broad discussion on cognitive-behavioural literature, this paper presents a short case study. It explores a series of potentially powerful questions that may assist clients to ‘reframe’ their perspectives. It explores some coaching interventions that may assist clients to self-identify solutions to negative thinking and take meaningful steps to sustain positive thinking in the long term.
Key terms: Negative vs Positive Thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Coaching, Reframing Perspectives.
This briefing on ‘Negative vs Positive Thinking’ speaks to a basic philosophy in coaching and other helping professions. As human beings we need to maintain oneself, to stay properly ‘tuned’ for success and happiness in life and career. We need to bring our attention to our own thinking in order to keep ourselves effective and in a state of readiness for a good life and career.
The basic philosophy behind this metaphor is that we ourselves, our hearts and minds, are the instrument of success in our lives. Just as a guitarist tunes and maintains their instrument of practice, we too need to learn how to tune ourselves, how to maintain ourselves each day, for best practice.
In business degrees and professional training, professionals and leaders are rarely taught how to ‘tune’ or maintain themselves for effective management and leadership. This is especially imperative for those who lead teams because loyalty and trustful relationships are understood to be an essential psychosocial dynamic ineffective and high-functioning teams (Dinç & Gastmans, 2011. Gibson & Manuel, 2003). We destroy management relationships if we continually use up the trust in those relationships by communicating poorly or behaving in ways that undermine connection and agility.
The concept of keeping one’s attention (a) on issues arising in work and (b) on one’s own internal responses to those issues(at the same time) is not well described in the leadership literature. This power tool makes a modest contribution to the area of coaching by focusing on negative versus positive thinking and maintenance of self for good leadership and management I’m going to describe the literature on negative and positive thinking. But before I do that, let me situate myself within this power tool“negative versus positive thinking.”
Situating Myself in the Topic
They say we teach what we most need to learn. What I’ve written about clients as instruments of practice is true for me as a coach and a person – just as it is for leaders and professionals I work with.
My own interest in this power tool is motivated by my clients’ struggles and also by my own. When I was younger I was perhaps naïvely positive. I had big dreams. I had a belief in the power of those dreams and a belief in my capacity to achieve them. But as I’ve aged I’ve observed a shift in my thinking. I am more aware of my own vulnerabilities and limitations. I fear to live a little more and I worry more about those I love. I feel slightly less invincible
I detected this thinking in myself around 2 years ago. I then listened to myself and processed the thoughts and related feelings of vulnerability. Using cognitive behavioural techniques, I developed new personal rituals into my daily life. I introduced gratitude lists, vision-boarding or story-boarding my goals actively every day. I identified negative thoughts, explored their validity, and deliberately creating the opposite thought- using positive thoughts as ‘antidotes’ to negative thinking.
I used affirmations but found that affirmations only work if I connect them to powerful memories of happiness that are hooked to good feelings. If I connect affirmations to good feelings, then the affirmation hard-wires in my brain because it comes with strong emotion as well as the affirmative thought. I’ve also learned to keep changing the affirmation and the memories I connect with them, as this creates positive beliefs that become viable inner resources for positive change over the long term.
My clients seem to also have found lasting benefit working on practical cognitive-behavioural strategies that (a) investigate negative thoughts to understand them and (b) emphasize positive thinking and how it can be a stable resource for long term success and good feelings.
Now that I’ve had some experience using the power tool “negative versus positive thinking,” I’ve learned something incredibly important about negative thoughts. First, I’ve realized that some negative thoughts and beliefs are connected to memories of failure or pain from the past. The malicious lie that negative thinking plays on us as we age is this: we tend to believe negative thoughts because they emerge from past experiences, those negative beliefs are somehow more valid than the ‘naïve’ positive beliefs we had as young people, because we believe they’re based on “experience” and therefore are some kind of empirical evidence of fact.
This is not true.
I’ve realized that, when I think negative thoughts, the negative manifests in my life. I’ve watched my clients come to the same realization. The thoughts themselves bring what they are focused on.I’m not saying we magically create our own reality. I’m saying that when we’re stuck in negative thinking, we magnetize ourselves to the negative and so we miss positive opportunities that are right in front of us.
I’ve noticed that when I or my clients replace negatives with positives, something miraculous happens: life around us changes. The world appears to have completely changed and yet, in reality, is just us and our thinking.
I situate myself within this power tool article to highlight my own humanity as a message to myself). I want to remind myself that I am, like my clients, vulnerable and human. I am an instrument that needs tending to, and, tuning myself, nurturing and supporting myself is a key part of that task.
Next, I take a look at some current views on negative thinking.
The Literature on Negative versus Positive Thinking
One of the more difficult aspects of negative self-talk is that it can be hard to see – yet incredibly powerful. It challenges our very sense of inner strength and innate capacity. It challenges our view that ourselves, others and the world have positive qualities that serve us. Worst of all, it undermines our self-confidence when we need it most. The thoughts associated with negative self-talk can be hard to identify. Once negative self-talk becomes habitual, we just feel the feelings associated with it, without access to the thoughts that cause those feelings. When this happens, negative thinking becomes negative feeling and it’s often described as “feeling sad” or “feeling bad” or simply feels like a state of actual being.
Because negative thinking affects nearly everyone at some time or other, ways to transform it are an important issue. In one form or other, “affirmations”—deliberately countering negative thoughts about oneself to expressed positive ones—have occupied something close to the centre court in self-help circles and many kinds of coaching or counselling.
Clearly affirmations work for some – they don’t work for everyone. Less often recognized, they defeat the best efforts of people in greatest need. Of course, it’s better to tell yourself, consciously, “I’m good” rather than “I’m bad.” But a lifetime of thinking the latter, being told the latter, and/or for whatever reason believing the latter, and acting or feeling accordingly, is at best counterproductive. At worst, it’s something that people convinced they are no good, at the unconscious, subconscious, or conscious levels, regard as just one more personal failure or inadequacy, particularly when the elation of self-esteem is not immediate.
The shelf life of replacement “therapy”
What’s most often overlooked in the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, however well-phrased, is that it’s most often an ineffective way to start. It’s like forcing a smile. It doesn’t seem real to you or the others around you because of its decoration, not substance.
Repeatedly telling yourself—out loud and in front of a mirror, or on paper in repetitive statements of what effectively is “tomorrow I will do my homework”—has a short self-life. Of course, it’s a good decision to do your homework tomorrow, rather than procrastinating, but forced feeling good or inflated self-esteem rarely lasts until tomorrow. It’s merely a dodge of feeling inadequacy or error today. And when it becomes a repeated strategy, the person doing it doesn’t even believe it at the time, so the very commitment to be/do better registers as a lie on the part of the person making it. What follows can only be awareness or reinforcement of the idea, “I’m dishonest” or “I’m a liar.”
The value of using/working with such affirmations is that they count as practice, an essential element in changing negative thinking. If one thing is clear about changing
negative thinking is that the change is not instantaneous and requires sustained work.
An unfortunate source of negative self-thinking is the experience of slipping back into “old” ways of thinking or acting. The sense of its being a failure—that “I’m a failure”—is worse the more conscious you are of it. It’s the next-door neighbour to “It/I will always be like this,” perhaps the most toxic of negative thoughts.
The truth is that like anything that needs to be learned—the multiplication tables, playing the piano, hitting or catching the ball—not only does it entail failures along the way; the mistakes are how we learn. One of the old saws about increasing self-esteem is “to do esteemable things.” This is, of course, undeniable, but not all attempts to be/do good turn out the way we want them to or are received in the way we hope they will be. “Charity” often backfires or disappoints.
Giving up in the face of failure is a path to guaranteed lowered self-esteem. Instead, learning that “This didn’t work this time (or in this situation),” “This isn’t the desired result yet, but it’s moving in that direction”, or simply—but not self-chastising “That was a mistake” is proof of several more important truths, namely, that:
- Everyone makes mistakes
- Discovering what doesn’t work is a movement toward what does
- Practice doesn’t “make perfect”; it “makes skilful,” and skills can be improved where perfection can not
Naming: Consciousness of negative thoughts
A key to changing a behaviour is knowing what the behaviour is. Making music, for example, doesn’t improve if one error is merely replaced by another in a subsequent practice session. There’s little to be learned from “I played the wrong note.” Everyone does from time to time. Learning has more to do with getting the movement from one note to another in muscle memory—or, sometimes, not just putting in time practising but rather paying attention while doing so.
Naming a recurring negative thought is the first step toward changing it. Being able to say that the problem is “inattention” or “distraction” rather than the ability to achieve repeatable muscle movements is central to making progress in activities from sports to cooking to job-specific tasks such as typing. Calling what it is—not just “thinking about my boyfriend/girlfriend” but not focusing on the work at hand is what allows the step from the former to the latter.
Neuroscientist Dr Daniel Siegel calls it “initiating cognitive defusion.” The defusion is the disconnection of the idea “I can’t do it” from the reality that “this technique requires paying attention to what I’m doing until doing it successfully becomes a habit rather than an accident.” It’s a way to arrest the defeating negative thought, “I can’t do it yet” or “If I pay attention to this particular place I usually/often/regularly [but not always] have problems, I may solve them.”
Is the impediment “laziness” or, as likely, “fear of failure”? Is it “inability” or “not being as good as others”? Is it something “forbidden” or simply having acquired—and taken on someone else’s ideas of accepted behaviour or prohibition of a specific behaviour for a non-relevant reason.
When she was studying piano with her first teacher in Argentina, Martha Argerich—who is now routinely referred to as a “force of nature” at the piano—was given Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, one of the hardest pieces for piano, to learn. When she arrived for her next lesson three days later and played it for him, he asked in astonishment, “How did you learn Gaspard in three days?” Her answer, equally perplexed, was, “No one told me I couldn’t.”
Coming to Your Senses
The most surefire way to come out of thinking that is so habitual that it has become ingrained is to return to your senses—literally. Evaluate your situation at the moment, listen to what your body (not your mind) tells you, and determine whether your goal is “impossible” rather than “reasonable.” Mankind’s greatest steps forward have been by people doing what was thought impossible. Also, some of mankind’s great disasters have resulted from unreasonable assumptions, for example, that the Titanic was unsinkable.
Getting into the moment also provides the clearest guidance about the veracity of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts—“I can’t do this”; “Only other people can do this”—can be questioned, even talked back to. There’s no more powerful response to “I can’t” than “Oh yeah?” or “Says who?”
- Is what I think true or something someone has told me/convinced me off before?
- Is what I think generally true or have I generalized it? (“I can’t write” rather than “I can’t write feature articles The New Yorker will accept?”
- Is my thought the result of black-and-white thinking? (“I can’t run a four-minute mile on day one, so why bother?)
- Is my thought the result of an inflated or deflated sense of my importance? (“If I haven’t gotten a text in an hour, he/she must be mad at me?” “Did he break his leg because it happened while he was doing something I asked him to do for me?”)
Core Beliefs: the real source of native thoughts
Most of our negative thinking derives from deep beliefs, very often unconscious, that we hold. As often as not they come from things we have been told at an early or impressionable age, or from incorrect conclusions we have drawn from a particular situation or circumstance.
These beliefs that motivate our actions, as well as our thoughts, usually require the help of others outside ourselves—psychological professionals or people who for some other reason have no stake in our belief(s). Sometimes they can be changed by an amount of evidence to the contrary. The deeply held belief that “I am ugly” can be modified by spontaneous or frequent remarks about how good we look. But even they may not be changed by evidence to the contrary. Sexual promiscuity, for example, may not counter a deeply held belief in one’s own unattractiveness to others but actually play into and, in the long term, augment it.
Negativity about money is typically a matter more of beliefs than the resulting spending/saving practices. Coming from impoverished families can lead to a lifetime of thinking “We’re/I’m poor.” Witnessing people, particularly parents, with chronic problems with money” can easily spawn the idea “money is a problem.” Being told repeatedly that “economic inequality” is a polite way of saying everything from “No one deserves to earn what [a sports/movie star/politician/CEO” is a stepping stone to “People with money haven’t earned it” to “Dishonesty/criminality is the only way to have money” to the far more pervasive and self-destructive beliefs, “Money is bad” and, worst of all, “I don’t deserve to have/make money.”
The consequences of such beliefs are that they tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Because we think money/sex/religion is problematic, we bring on unnecessary issues about them. The extreme form is the belief that “My religion/nationality/race is right” and therefore others are wrong and should be opposed or even eliminated.
Some of these deep beliefs can and will be changed in the living of a maturing life in a world larger than the one in which we were born. Others are so deep and hard-wired that they require considerable professional help and lots of healing time to “un-believe.” The core example here is “I am unlovable” or, as bad, “No one loves me.” The consequences range from the cultivation of unhealthy, particularly abusive relationships with others, to taking every criticism, however, sound or well-intended, as censure to simply “making mountains out of molehills.” A store clerk is having a bad day, says something rude or inappropriate to you, and you conclude that it’s your fault, you had it coming, or, up the line, “See, no one loves me.”
The reason it is worth “getting to the bottom” of our beliefs—about the world as well as about ourselves—is that if we don’t recognize them as things we have come to believe but are not true, we spend our days looking for evidence that they are true. The rude store clerk means I’ve done something wrong.” The romantic breakup means that “No one loves me.” The misfortune means “I had it coming.” The smallest financial setback means “I’m always a day late and a dollar short.”
We’d rather be right than be happy, or even reasonable with ourselves and others. Our negative beliefs about ourselves cause us to see evidence of it everywhere and,
all too often, prompt us to act on our deepest beliefs that “I am bad” by doing bad things.
Everyday resolutions to negative thinking
Without delving into deep therapy, there are several known antidotes to negative thinking.
- Keeping a gratitude list. There are things that at the worst of times for us we nevertheless have and can be consciously grateful for.
- Keeping “thought diaries” so we can track the way our beliefs affect situations we are or put ourselves in, and the thoughts and beliefs everyday events call up in our minds. Soon enough they will affect if not determine our behaviour (s).
- “Reconsolidate” our thinking so that we see that there are both positive and negative sides to all situations. At the most basic it can be as simple as knowing that the fact that we’re broke today doesn’t mean we’ll never have any more money. At the most advanced, it can mean that there is hardly the circumstance in which we do not also have the potion to be happy, just because.
- The regular practice of mindfulness, in any of a myriad of ways, from meditation to yoga to spiritual practice to healthy introspection. These practices both show us where we are, emotionally, in any situation, and that a) we don’t have to buy into our interpretations because there are others, and b) we can see the negative thinking for what it is and detach from it before it leads to harmful behaviours or habits.
- Help someone. Most spiritual traditions demonstrate that the surest path out of negative thinking is that action of doing something good—and usually entirely unrelated—for someone else. Esteemable action leading to increased self-esteem. Stop comparing ourselves to people we consider better off and instead direct our energies to the less fortunate. We have to let negative thoughts come—and recognize them for what they are—before we can let them go.
Dinç Leyla and Gastmans Chris. 2011. Trust and trustworthiness in nursing: an argument-based literature review. Nursing Inquiry. Vol 19.Is 3. Ankara, Turkey.
Gibson, Christina B. Manuel, Jennifer A. 2003. Building Trust: Effective Multi-Cultural Communication Process in Virtual Teams. Centre for Effective Leadership, University of Southern California.