A Research Paper By Cauvery Bhalla, Transformational Coach, INDIA
Negativity, Positivity, and Neutrality Importance in Achieving Our Goals
My Model is ARC – like a character arc in any great story. The first step of my model is Amplify. Amplify is about creating a deep connection where the client can state everything that is going on in their mind without feeling inhibited or judged. At this stage, the client feels comfortable going beyond the stated obvious concern and examining what outcome will truly satisfy them. This led me to think about what does the brain naturally amplify? What is our brain hardwired to consider? There is no denying that the brain is hardwired to focus on the negative. This can be seen in research by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., at the University of Chicago that demonstrated that the brain responds more strongly to negative stimuli. Similarly, Nobel laureates Kahneman and Tversky discovered that when making decisions, people place a greater emphasis on the negative aspects, such as loss and damage, than on the positive ones. The brain exhibits a natural affinity to hold onto and ruminate on bad experiences, landing itself in an almost state of fixation.
A brain, married to the traumas of the past, the little unpleasant experiences during the day, or the fear of things not working out in the future, has little hope of achieving any goal it sets out for itself.
In my own experience, I have seen extremely positive people not achieve much either. Some people seem almost inauthentic in their positivity. This led me to think about the role that negativity, positivity, and perhaps even neutrality play in moving us towards our goals.
I recall listening to Barbara Fredrickson on The Positivity Ratio. I like the metaphor she used – that of a sailboat. A sailboat is a vehicle that can take the client to their destination. The boat needs both a tall mast for the sails and a heavy keel. She compares positivity to the sails that give the boat momentum and negativity to the keel that keeps the boat firm on its course. I see this metaphor a little differently. To my mind, there are 3 things at play here:
The keel – the negativity – the current dissatisfaction – exploring the keel makes the client aware of their true need – what they want to be changed. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is a powerful motivator to stay the course and achieve the goals one has set out to achieve.
- The sails – the positivity – the excitement and enthusiasm that one feels when a goal is achievable. Exploring why the goal is important and the strengths and resources that the client has on hand can be great ways to get the excitement going. It is the sail that adds momentum to the journey.
- The mast – the tall structure rising from the boat that supports the sail. This, to my mind, is neutrality – the ability to see the world as is without the coloring of good or bad. The sails need a strong mast to carry the boat upwind or downwind. Our emotions cannot jump from negativity to positivity. If I were to use the metaphor of a vessel, one needs to empty the stale food, clean the vessel, and have it in its uncontaminated state before one can add fresh food. The uncontaminated vessel is neutrality. Neutrality, simply put, is a state of just being. Just be and objectively look at life.
How to Use Positivity, Negativity, and Neutrality in a Healthy Way
In this paper, I want to focus on the healthy ways of using these three modes and their possible implications in a coaching session.
We experience negativity in life, both in our emotions and in our bodies. Some common expressions of negativity are irritability, sadness, anger, and annoyance. These emotions are felt as sensations in our gut, heart, back, etc. In the Indian system, emotions are often linked to the 7 Chakras in a human being. For example, the Muladhara Chakra – Root Chakra is associated with a sense of security and purpose. For individuals who are not able to communicate what is not right, locating these sensations in the body (chakras) can be a great map of what the individual is feeling. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions provides an enriched vocabulary for emotions. It also highlights associated behaviors and body sensations. Most importantly, it highlights what each of these emotions is trying to tell you. Another interesting fact is that emotions are absorbed into the body in about six seconds! This means that if we are experiencing emotion for more than 6 seconds, our mind is choosing to recreate or refuel it over and over. It is yelling at the top of its lungs, but the message is lost! In a coaching session, the negativity is heard in the story. It is the story that the client has told themselves over and over without ever getting to the moral. In the coaching session, once we can help the client discover the essence of the emotions they are experiencing – the message it is trying to convey to them – for example, ‘Fundamental values are violated, Something I care about is at risk, The potential for this situation isn’t being met – we can delink the story and the person.
Negativity Applications in Coaching
- Helping the client explore what is at the core of their negative experience helps them set meaningful goals for the coaching session.
- Helping the client look beneath the surface of negative emotion can reveal the true problem or lead to the discovery of secondary benefits the client is deriving from the problem
Positivity means looking at life from the brighter side – just like the sun’s energy galvanizes people, positivity bestows energy, enthusiasm, and momentum towards our goals. There is a lot of research both for and against positivity/ positive thinking. Positive thinking, summarised as ‘if you think positively and focus your energy on what you want, you will get it ‘, can lead to ignoring the need for action, setting shallow goals, and disconnecting from one’s truth. Other researchers also agree that dreamers rarely achieve as much because they don’t act on their goals. Yet one cannot ignore the role of positivity in achieving goals. Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that positive emotions can open one’s mind and broaden one’s sense of possibilities. This in turn allows one to think of new resources, options, solutions, and pathways to get to one’s desired goals. According to her research, the tipping point for this breakthrough is 3:1. One needs to experience three times as many heartfelt positive emotions as negative emotions. She highlights that positivity is not about ignoring the negative (not a 3:0) ratio, but about building for oneself three times as many positive experiences, to not lose momentum. According to some others, this magic ratio can be 5: 1 and, for yet others, 10: 1 (10x gain justifies behavior change).
Positivity Applications in Coaching:
- The ground rule of coaching is to not dwell on the negative. The coach’s primary role is to keep the client moving forward. Dwelling on the negative can get the client stuck in the story or feel disempowered to move forward.
- Both positivity and negativity emerge from the perspectives we hold. Reframing perspectives is key to the coaching process. Reframing a perspective can lead to more positive emotions and empowering actions.
- Help clients discover the voice of their truth. When the clients get in touch with their truth – their strengths, skills, values, priorities, desires, talents, etc; the authenticity of the experience sparks positivity in the client, helping them move forward.
It’s all about being the calm of the storm in the crucial moments.- Russell Wilson via Sports Illustrated
Neutrality is experienced as a sense of calm, peace, and acceptance in the mind. Neutral thinking involves looking at a situation as it is without the filters of good or bad. Eckhart Tolle in the Power of Now shares an interesting exercise – he asks, what is wrong at this moment? Don’t think of 5 years ago, 5 months ago, or even 5 minutes ago. Look at this moment here and now! This technique is used by many practitioners of mindfulness. The here and now snaps people out of their stories. Neutrality is about consciously removing the filters of the mind and looking at the situation as it is. The mind, in its neutral state, can look at the situation holistically. It can balance information from both positive and negative perspectives before making any decisions. Neutrality can also be viewed as objectivity. Neutrality can counter the effects of too much positivity or negativity. Going back to the metaphor of the sailboat, the mast is a towering pole that gives the sailboat its distinctive shape and holds the sails in place. While the mast-to-keel ratio can vary, the mast is usually longer than the length of the boat. As a metaphor, this means that for objectivity to kick in, one needs to be able to zoom out of the problem and reach high enough to see the entire boat. In coaching terms, it means being able to rise above the story and look forward.
Neutrality Applications in coaching
For the coach
As coaches, our primary role is to hold the space. This holding space is the essence of neutrality. One is completely present without judgment, biases, plans, or dreams. This holding space is where the magic of coaching happens.
One may often wonder if all the work is done by the client, what does the coach do? There is a story in Mahabharat where Arjuna, a great Indian archer, has a conversation with his teacher Krishna, asking a similar question. Arjuna is preparing for an extremely difficult archery competition. He needs to shoot the eye of a fish tied to a spinning wheel, which is visible but completely submerged underwater. Additionally, he needs to shoot looking up, at a mirror where the wheel is reflected, instead of looking directly underwater. Noticing Arjuna is a little nervous on the night before, Krishna walks up to Arjuna and says, “Don’t worry, Arjuna – you do what you can do, and I will do what you can’t do.” The next day, the competition begins. Arjuna was the only warrior who was able to shoot the arrow in the eye of the fish, a nearly impossible task. Joyous and perhaps a little arrogant about his victory, Arjuna went to Krishna and said, “I did all the work. I focused, I aimed, and I shot the eye of the fish. What did you do, Krishna? ” Krishna smiled and replied, “I did what you can’t do – hold the water still.” This story, to my mind, is the perfect partnership between a coach and a coachee.
Here are some methods that coaches can use to practice a neutral mindset.
- Regular practice of mindfulness and meditation. Both mindfulness and meditation are practices that help us work with our attention. In the course of a normal day, our attention can run in a hundred different directions. It gets pulled in the direction of our negativity and positivity biases. Both mindfulness and meditation can improve our ability to consciously choose where to place our attention. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and is characterized by in-the-moment awareness. Meditation is usually done at a set place and at a set time on a set object.
- Cultivate active listening – listen to what is said and not said. Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, voice modulation, and facial expressions. Notice and be curious as opposed to noticing and claiming to know what the client is feeling. Curiosity is a great way to get the mind into a neutral state.
- Practice Detachment: This is possibly the most difficult aspect of coach training. As humans, we want to be successful at what we do. The “aha!” moment that the client experiences in the coaching session can quickly turn into an addictive feeling for the coach. And soon, active listening suffers because the coach, not the client, is in the driving seat of the coaching session. Not indulging in labeling the success or failure of the session as one’s success or failure is a good way to practice detachment.
For the Coachee
- In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, Gabriele Oettingen talks about the need to combine positivity with objectivity to maximize achievement. Her research shows that once positive thinking has kicked in and the goal is chosen, objectively or realistically looking at obstacles helps people create a plan that they will stick to. Her model, WOOP (Wish – Outcome – Obstacle – Plan) has helped people achieve their dreams and turn them into reality.
The Ratio of Negativity, Positivity, and Neutrality Is 1: 3: 15
In summary, I think that as a coach, each of the three aspects of positivity, negativity, and neutrality has a significant role to play. My ratio for negativity, positivity, and neutrality is 1: 3: 15. While this is not yet backed by research, I find that focusing on neutrality is important for both the coach and the coachee to create a fruitful partnership.
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