Remove “Not” from Your Discussion

by on September 9, 2013

Forgive me if this is preachy. Forgive me if it seems like a rant.

I was sitting in the Dean’s office of the university where I teach and we were having a discussion about the program. One thing that was a brief side note was how it’s become a common characteristic of people to always express their opinions and accomplishments (or lack thereof) in a negative clause.

For example, imagine you’re having a discussion with someone and you’re explaining to them how to make a cake. I realize this is an elementary example, but stick with me for a moment. You’re giving instruction on how to make this cake and you don’t realize the guy you’re talking to is a baker. The first words out of his mouth are, “That’s not right.”

How do you feel at that moment? Put down? Defensive? Ashamed?

And then you add in the simple age old, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

In this example, negativity begins just by the simple act of using the word, “not.” This excludes consideration of attitude and body language.

Now think about how many times you had a discussion about any topic and the person you were conversing with presented their counter argument by using that single word, “not.”

  • It’s not a good idea.
  • It’s not the way it’s done.
  • It is not your job role.

And this could perhaps also be an expression more to the tune of “You are doing that the wrong way.” Even though the absence of “not” is there, it’s still a negative clause. It’s still probably more common to hear “You’re not doing that right.”

Now consider how you present your own accomplishments. Your boss asks you in the morning, “Did you get everything done yesterday?” Is it your reaction to answer the question by saying “I didn’t get done x, y, & z,” or do you sit there and list all that you did get done? More commonly, I believe people will answer on the basis of what they did not accomplish. In this scenario, the negative clause of establishing what you didn’t succeed at creates a feeling of failure for yourself and also can create a negative perception to your boss. And when you have the list of 50 tasks, and 3 didn’t get accomplished, is it fair to create that perception. Why not celebrate the accomplishment of the other 47 tasks?

I would argue and debate that the use of this negative clause and other variations could hinder someone’s productivity, personal growth, and even their self-worth, regardless of differentiating factors such as age or level of education.

And where do I derive this conclusion? It takes me back to when my wife, Lindsay, and I first were preparing to have our son, Cael. We read through the “Mommy books” and I casually surfed the web for blogs about parenting. Some of the things most commonly expressed are that you never tell your kid that they are doing something the wrong way or that they can’t or shouldn’t do something.

The idea of telling a child that they are doing something the wrong way is because we as people want to control. More often than not, there is not a “right way.” There are, in fact, better ways to achieve a task. There are more or less efficient ways to achieve a task. But generally, “the right way” is an opinion and perspective. So to tell your kid that what they are doing is wrong, is often times a put down because you aren’t giving them the opportunity to be taught the better way with openness and a non-judgmental basis. And although children are more sensitive to the judgments of their parents, as adults are we any less responsive to the criticisms of peers and colleagues?

To tell a child that they cannot or should not do something creates a sense of rebellion. It’s a bit of human nature to want to prove yourself right. So, rather than saying something to your child like, “You can’t touch the oven.” You should take a moment to explain in a more positive and reinforcing way that, “If you touch the oven, you’re going to get burnt because it’s very hot and it will hurt a lot. And I don’t want to see you get hurt.” Yes, it’s a mouth full, but the sentiment and effort to explain and educate reduces the likelihood that the child will rebel or argue.

Both of these concepts, I have seen successful with my own son. And in context, these hold true for adults. In both of these examples that are parenting 101, the core is taking the time and effort to explain and rephrase your thoughts in a more positive way. Pretty simple right?

So, let’s go back to the unknown baker you are discussing your cake with. After you explain your process and recipe, the baker says, “You know, I see what you’re going for and I think it would be even better if you did…” You are likely to not be offended. And you are likely to be more open to his ideas. And most importantly, you are having a collaborative and productive discussion that benefits you rather than offends and creates defensiveness.

And in the workplace, the same holds true in everyday conversation.

  • Rather than, “It’s not a good idea.” How about, “It would be better if…”
  • Rather than “It not the way it’s done,” how about the entire notion is thrown out the window and time is invested to show and demonstrate a better way and just approach the situation by saying, “Can I show you another way?”
  • Rather than, “It’s not your job role,.” how about you positively reinforce a person to admire them for their efforts and ambition and recommend that they discuss their thoughts with the person whose job role it is to create better collaboration of ideas?

As an employer, a business person, a teacher, husband, and a parent, I have attempted to make this effort to remove negative clauses or “not” from my conversations with others in order to always keep discussions motivated and productive.

As an employer and boss, I see better productivity and quality out of the people I work with. As a business person, I think it’s a quality that establishes and maintains relationships with clients. As a teacher, I’d like to think my students feel they are genuinely learning. As a husband and parent, I think we have a healthy home with discussion but free of argument and volatile disagreements. And I have to note, my wife is just as positive and open-minded when it comes to our discussions and in reinforcing the growth and development of our son.

I am far from perfect. But in my efforts, I’d like to believe I have seen success. The act of being more positive or “half glass full” in every discussion and taking time to create more open doors to discussion, in my opinion, has contributed to my own success on every level. And more importantly, I’d like to believe it has had a positive impact on those around me regardless of whether it’s my employees, students, family, or friends.

So, try it. Make an effort to remove the negative clauses from your discussions. See what the impact yourself is by creating more positive and productive dialog that supports the people you encounter.

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